New research reveals the impact of different species and their traits on human wellbeing

Gary Hughes
Picture by Prof Martin Dallimer

New research has revealed for the first time that well-functioning ecosystems are crucial to human health and wellbeing, with human-biodiversity interactions delivering wellbeing gains equating to substantial healthcare cost-savings, when scaled-up across populations.

The Kent-led study, which is part of the European Research Council-funded project ‘Relating Subjective Wellbeing to Biodiversity’ (RELATE), set out to understand which components of nature and biodiversity played a particular role in human wellbeing.

The team, which was led by Professor Zoe Davies, analysed the effects of species’ traits, based on people’s feedback following a series of workshops, to identify those that generate different types of wellbeing e.g., physical, emotional, cognitive, social, spiritual, and ‘global’, the latter being akin to ‘whole-person health’.

The team found that, in general, the vast majority of species and traits are beneficial to human wellbeing. They also discovered that each species may support multiple traits, potentially with different impacts. For example, the colours of brambles (black, pink, red) are linked to multiple positive physical, emotional and social wellbeing types, but their prickly texture generated negative emotional wellbeing. The numerous traits from across an ecological community can elicit a multitude of wellbeing responses, illustrating the true complexity of how people relate to biodiversity.

Professor Davies, a biodiversity conservationist at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), said: ‘While we know that spending time in natural environments can improve our health and wellbeing, we still need to know more about which species, or traits of species (such as colours, sounds, smells, textures and behaviours), deliver these benefits – and how people’s relationships with biodiversity are both contextually and culturally specific. Understanding how people experience biodiversity is therefore key to successfully managing biodiversity to facilitate human wellbeing.’

Study co-author, Professor Martin Dallimer, from the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, said: ‘For the first time, through analysing people’s own words and reflections, we are able to explicitly link that feeling of wellbeing with species and their traits. How people respond to biodiversity is hugely varied and if we want people’s wellbeing to benefit from spending time in nature, then it is essential to make sure we are maintaining and restoring high quality biodiverse spaces for wildlife and for people. Our aim is that these findings really drive home how important biodiversity is in underpinning wellbeing benefits, particularly to healthcare and public sectors who include ‘spending time in nature’ as an element of mental health and wellbeing.’

Dr Jessica Fisher, also from DICE, added: ‘By starting to comprehend how people experience biodiversity, we can begin to manage our natural environments for both biodiversity conservation and human health. Even small improvements in wellbeing at an individual level could scale up to substantial healthcare cost savings across an entire country. Our approach can be used to create better-tailored public health interventions or architectural/landscape designs by, for example, maximising the likelihood of people having interactions with certain species and their traits. Critically, as each additional species in an ecological community supports additional traits, maintaining or enhancing biodiversity will be key to delivering human wellbeing.’

Human wellbeing responses to species’ traits” (J. C. Fisher, University of Kent; M. Dallimer, University of Leeds; K. N. Irvine, James Hutton Institute; S. G. Aizlewood, G. E. Austen, R. D. Fish, P. M. King, Z. G. Davies, University of Kent) is published in Nature Sustainability. DOI 10.1038/s41893-023-01151-3

(All images courtesy of Prof Martin Dallimer)

Field work

Research team and participants from a project workshop