Biodiversity is declining from unprecedented land conversions that replace diverse, low-intensity agriculture with vast expanses under homogeneous, intensive production. Despite documented losses of species richness, consequences for β-diversity, changes in community composition between sites, are largely unknown, especially in the tropics. Using a 10-year data set on Costa Rican birds, we find that low-intensity agriculture sustained β-diversity across large scales on a par with forest. In high-intensity agriculture, low local (α) diversity inflated β-diversity as a statistical artefact. Therefore, at small spatial scales, intensive agriculture appeared to retain β-diversity. Unlike in forest or low-intensity systems, however, high-intensity agriculture also homogenised vegetation structure over large distances, thereby decoupling the fundamental ecological pattern of bird communities changing with geographical distance. This ~40% decline in species turnover indicates a significant decline in β-diversity at large spatial scales. These findings point the way towards multi-functional agricultural systems that maintain agricultural productivity while simultaneously conserving biodiversity.
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