Wednesday, August 7, 2013

ESA 2013, day 3: Like a kid in a candy store.

Sometimes there are moments in my career where feel truly fortunate. Today I was fortunate enough to be a speaker in a session on evolution, biodiversity and ecosystem function. The other talks in this session were outstanding, full of amazing insights into how historical evolutionary dynamics affect modern-day ecological patterns. The presentations were followed by a fantastic panel discussion stimulated by thoughtful questions from the audience. The talks covered a range of topics from including species interactions in models of evolutionary change to using traits to understand coexistence to trying to find patterns when close relatives do not coexist.

The first talk from Luke Harmon on finding phylogenetic signatures on species interactions was incredible. He is an entertaining speaker and included references to his kids finding leaf cutter ants.  He show us how one could fit phylogenetic models that include coevolution. The negative effects of coevolution should affect trait evolution and one should see this signature in variance-covariance matrices. Random evolutionary change generates covariance between species. Stabilizing selection will remove this covariance, while with competition there should be negative covariances apparent. From models we see an interesting signature where older species are able to diverge and fill niche space (thus diverging rapidly) while later species are constrained in their evolution (thus remaining similar). Older species can contribute more to ecosystem function because of historical competitive effects.

Next was Nathan Kraft talking about how traits can potential shed light on fitness and niche differences in coexisting species. In a plant experiment with focal species grown alone and at different densities with competitors, he showed that very few pairs met the conditions for coexistence. For those that do appear to be able to coexist, no traits were associated with fitness difference, but several traits appeared to be associated with fitness differences. Multivariate analyses  showed that an assortment of five traits collectively appeared to be associated with niche differences. Some of these traits appeared to also explain fitness differences, revealing the complexity in assigning traits to specific ecological effects.

In Jeannine Cavender-Bares’ talk, she examined how evolutionary transitions in seed dormancy helped explain modern day ecological patterns in the Fabaceae family (the pea and bean family). The Fabaceae includes species that have dormant and non-dormant  seeds. Dormancy should be favored in certain environments (e.g., less predictable and poor environments). Large seeds are much less likely to be dormant, as well as those occurring at lower latitudes. Historical transitions in dormancy seemed to be correlated with changes in temperature lineages experienced.

Finally, Sharon Strauss critically examine dhow to separate history form ecology. We need to be cognizant of scale effects, where larger scale observations will include more close relatives than we usually see at local scales. Communities contain ‘ghosts’ of past competition and assembly. If species originate allopatrically (in separate places), then we expect that close relatives should not coexist, which can skew our inference about how ecological differences have evolved. Within habitats we seldom see closely related species coexisting . She gave a number of great Californian examples of species appearing to co-occur at large scales but not locally. For example, Limnanthes plants occur in the same region but species never co-occur in the same vernal pool.


These talks represent the collective excitement about the fact that we are entering a new synthesis in ecology. Evolution is required to understand ecological patters and ecological interactions are need for understanding evolutionary change. These talks exhibited where the forefront of this synthesis is, and it was a great afternoon of talks.

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