Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Community structure - what are we missing?

Some of the most frequently used ecological concepts can be difficult to define. Sometimes this lack of clarity leads to a poor understanding and a weak base for further research. A great example is “community structure”, a concept frequently mentioned and rarely defined that probably changes a lot from use to use. The phrase “we’re interested in how communities are structured” is tossed around a lot, and I suppose an understood definition is that community structure encompasses the species that are present in a community and their abundances. Community structure may refer to  both a very simple concept (the abundances of species present in a community) and a very complicated one, connecting as it does mechanisms and models, observational data, and statistical measures. As a result, the precise way that ecologists delineate community structure and quantify it is both varied and vague.

The connection between models, community
structure and metrics.
In the literature, it seems that there are two ways of approaching “community structure”: bottom-up, in which community structure is a predicted outcome of theoretical models of different mechanisms, and top-down, in which community structure is measured in a relatively statistical or descriptive fashion. Both are valuable approaches: while statistical metrics often are interpreted as providing evidence for particular models or mechanisms, the reverse logic – that a model predicts particular results for a given metric – is rarely explicitly considered. Making connections between the model results and the descriptive metrics might actually be fairly difficult. Model predictions are often complex and multidimensional, predicting changes through time, growth rates, the combinations of species that can or cannot coexist (but only if assumptions hold), or particular relationships between measures like diversity, abundances, and range sizes. Metrics are necessarily confined to a few dimensions (or perhaps are ordination approaches), focus on straightforward observational measures like abundance and presence, and further include observational error (sampling, etc). Because community structure means something different to these two approaches, the connections between metrics and models are poorly explored. A theoretician might find it difficult to relate ordinations of communities with the typical predictions from a mathematical model (which might be something like growth rates in relation to changes in abundance), while someone collecting field data might feel that the data they can collect is difficult to relate to the predictions of models.

Part of the problem is that for a long time, the default focus was on what types of interactions structured communities (environment, competition, predation, mutualisms), and niches were assumed to be necessarily driving community structure. The type of measurements and metrics used reflected this search for niches (e.g. comparing environmental gradients with community structure). Many quantitative metrics may tell you something about how community structure relates to different variables (spatial, environment, biotic) and how much variation is still unexplained. The consideration that niches might not always be important eventually led ecologists to compare patterns in community structure to random, null, or neutral expectations. As a result, in the simplest cases the answers to questions about community structure and niches are binary – different from random (niches matter), or not. Looking for complex patterns predicted by models-for example, the relative contribution of niche based and neutral processes to community structure-is difficult using common metrics of community structure (although there are some papers that do a good job of this).

It is interesting that this problem of disconnection between theoretical models of community structure and community structure metrics received the most attention through criticisms of phylogenetic metrics of diversity. There, patterns of over- and under-dispersion were criticized for not being the necessary outcome from models of competition or environmental filtering (i.e. Mayfield and Levine 2010). While those criticisms were mostly fair, they are equally deserved in most studies of species diversity, where patterns in ordinations or beta-diversity are frequently used to infer mechanisms. In contrast, one of the best approaches thus far to integrating model predictions for community structure with metrics of community structure are null models. Though they differ greatly in ecological realism and complexity, null models suggest expected community structure or metric values if none of the expected processes are structuring a community.

One of the greatest failings of the top-down approach is that recognizing patterns outside of the expected, such as those that include stochasticity or a combination of different processes, or the effects of history, is nearly impossible. Models that can incorporate these complexities provide little suggestion of how the patterns we can easily record in communities might reflect complex structuring processes. Ecological research is limited by the poor connection between both top-down and bottom-up approaches and its vague definition of community structure. Patterns more complicated than those that the top-down approach searches for are likely being missed, while relations between models and metrics (or development of new metrics) aren’t considered often enough. One solution might be to more meaningfully define community structure, perhaps as the association (or lack thereof) between the combination of species present in a community and the combination of abiotic and/or biotic processes present. This association is generally compared to an association between species and processes that might arise from random effects alone. The difference is that structure shouldn’t be considered separately from the processes that produce it, and the connections should be explicitly rather than implicitly made.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, Caroline!
    After teaching general ecology for n+1 years (see originally posted formula to figure that one out), I must agree that 'community structure' needs to be defined more explicitly and clearly. My take, so far, is that it means different things to different ecologists. To some, it is more of a physical attribute: the number of canopy layers in a forest. To other, it is more functional: how many trophic levels. In both cases, the number of species involved determines to a certain extent how they function, and how much they interact (weren't ecologists all exited about connectivity at some point?). How much these interactions are not determined by the number and identity of species involved brings in the stochastic element you mention, which reminds me of the Gleasonian view of a community: haphazard assemblage of individuals of different species with similar responses to abiotic factors and with some commonalities in their recent history (what brought them together to a certain place). If someone could come up with a good definition of community structure, I trust that would be you. Let me know when it's ready!