Groundwater is a hidden global keystone ecosystem

Mattia Saccò*, Stefano Mammola, Florian Altermatt, Roman Alther, Rossano Bolpagni, Anton Brancelj, David Brankovits, Cene Fišer, Vasilis Gerovasileiou, Christian Griebler, Simone Guareschi, Grant C. Hose, Kathryn Korbel, Elisabeth Lictevout, Florian Malard, Alejandro Martínez, Matthew L. Niemiller, Anne Robertson, Krizler C. Tanalgo, Maria Elina BichuetteŠpela Borko, Traian Brad, Matthew A. Campbell, Pedro Cardoso, Fulvio Celico, Steven J. B. Cooper, David Culver, Tiziana Di Lorenzo, Diana M. P. Galassi, Michelle T. Guzik, Adam Hartland, William F. Humphreys, Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira, Enrico Lunghi, Daniele Nizzoli, Giulia Perina, Rajeev Raghavan, Zoe Richards, Ana Sofia P. S. Reboleira, Melissa M. Rohde, David Sánchez Fernández, Susanne I. Schmidt, Mieke van der Heyde, Louise Weaver, Nicole E. White, Maja Zagmajster, Ian Hogg, Albert Ruhi, Marthe M. Gagnon, Morten E. Allentoft, Robert Reinecke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
32 Downloads (Pure)


Groundwater is a vital ecosystem of the global water cycle, hosting unique biodiversity and providing essential services to societies. Despite being the largest unfrozen freshwater resource, in a period of depletion by extraction and pollution, groundwater environments have been repeatedly overlooked in global biodiversity conservation agendas. Disregarding the importance of groundwater as an ecosystem ignores its critical role in preserving surface biomes. To foster timely global conservation of groundwater, we propose elevating the concept of keystone species into the realm of ecosystems, claiming groundwater as a keystone ecosystem that influences the integrity of many dependent ecosystems. Our global analysis shows that over half of land surface areas (52.6%) has a medium-to-high interaction with groundwater, reaching up to 74.9% when deserts and high mountains are excluded. We postulate that the intrinsic transboundary features of groundwater are critical for shifting perspectives towards more holistic approaches in aquatic ecology and beyond. Furthermore, we propose eight key themes to develop a science-policy integrated groundwater conservation agenda. Given ecosystems above and below the ground intersect at many levels, considering groundwater as an essential component of planetary health is pivotal to reduce biodiversity loss and buffer against climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere17066
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number1
Early online date12 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2023. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • biodiversity
  • biomes
  • climate change
  • conservation
  • ecology
  • ecosystems
  • groundwater-dependent ecosystem
  • subterranean
  • water cycle


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