Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A multiplicity of communities for community ecology

Community ecologists have struggled with some fundamental issues for their discipline. A longstanding example is that we have failed to formally and consistently define our study unit – the ecological community. Textbook definitions are often broad and imprecise: for example, according to Wikipedia "a community...is an assemblage or associations of populations of two or more different species occupying the same geographical area". The topic of how to define the ecological community is periodically revived in the literature (for example, Lawton 1999; Ricklefs 2008), but in practice, papers rely on implicit but rarely stated assumptions about "the community". And even if every paper spent page space attempting to elucidate what it is we mean by “community”, little consistency would be achieved: every subdiscipline relies on its own communally understood working definition.

In their 1994 piece on ecological communities, Palmer and White suggested “that community ecologists define community operationally, with as little conceptual baggage as possible…”. It seems that ecological subdisciplines have operationalized some definition of "the community", but one of the weaknesses of doing so is that the conceptual basis for these communities is often obscured. Even if a community is simply where you lay your quadrat, you are making particular assumptions about what a community is. And making assumptions to delimit a community is not problematic: the problem is when results are interpreted without keeping your conceptual assumptions in mind. And certainly understanding what assumptions each subfield is making is far more important than simply fighting, unrealistically, for consistent definitions across every study and field.
Defining ecological communities.
Most definitions of the ecological community vary in terms of only a few basic characteristics (figure above) that are required to delimit *their* community. Communities can be defined to require that a group of species co-occur together in space and/or time, and this group of species may or may not be required to interact. For example, a particular subfield might define communities simply in terms of co-occurrence in space and time, and not require that interactions be explicitly considered or measured. This is not to say they don't believe that such interactions occur, just that they are not important for the research. Microbial "communities" tend to be defined as groups of co-occurring microbes, but interspecific interactions are rarely measured explicitly (for practical reasons). Similarly, a community defined as "neutral" might be studied in terms of characteristics other than species interactions. Studies of succession or restoration might require that species interact in a given space, but since species composition has or is changing through time, temporal co-occurrence is less important as an assumption. Subdisciplines that include all three characteristics include theoretical approaches, which tend to be very explicit in defining communities, and studies of food webs similarly require that species are co-existing and interacting in space and time. On the other hand, a definition such as “[i]t is easy to define local communities where in species interact by affecting each other’s demographic rates” (Leibold et al. 2004) does not include any explicit relationship of those species with space – making it possible to consider regionally coexisting species.

How you define the scale of interest is perhaps more important in distinguishing communities than the particulars of space, time, and interactions. Even if two communities are defined as having the same components, a community studied at the spatial or temporal scale of zooplankton is far different than one studied in the same locale and under the same particulars, but with interest in freshwater fish communities. The scale of interactions considered by a researcher interested in a plant community might include a single trophic level, while a food web ecologist would expand that scale of interactions to consider all the trophic levels. 

The final consideration relates to the historical debate over whether communities are closed and discrete entities, as they are often modelled in theoretical exercises, or porous and overlapping entities. The assumption in many studies tends to be that communities are discrete and closed, as it is difficult to model communities or food webs without such simplifying assumptions about what enters and leaves the system. On the other hand, some subdisciplines must explicitly assume that their communities are open to invasion and inputs from external communities. Robert Ricklef, in his 2008 Sewall Wright Address, made one of the more recent calls for a move from unrealistic closed communities to the acceptance that communities are really composed of the overlapping regional distributions of multiple organisms, and not local or closed in any meaningful way.

These differences matter most when comparing or integrating results which used different working definitions of "the community". It seems more important to note possible incompatibilities in working definitions than to force some one-size-fits-all definition on everything. In contrast to Palmer and White, the focus should not be on ignoring the conceptual, but rather on recognizing the relationship between practice and concept. For example, microbial communities are generally defined as species co-occurring in space and time, but explicit interactions don't have to be shown. While this is sensible from a practical perspective, the problem comes when theory and literature from other areas that assume interactions are occurring is directly applied to microbial communities. Only by embracing this multiplicity of definitions can we piece together existing data and evidence across subdisciplines to more fully understand “community ecology” in general.


Timothée said...

Very nice post! I was working on a draft post blog on the same topic following the paper of Leaper et al. in ecology, so nice job scooping me as well!

I think this topic should be discussed with students as well (http://timotheepoisot.fr/2014/01/21/teaching-ecological-communities/), because there is potential for interesting interactions about how come to define concepts in ecology.

Caroline Tucker said...

Thanks, I was inspired by the Leaper et al. paper (http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/13-0789.1) also :-) There is lots to still talk about on ecological communities, I like your post on teaching the concept!

Florian Hartig said...

Another candidate for cleaning up definitions would be the regional / biogeographical species pool. From a recent paper by Carstensen et al. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0587.2013.00329.x/abstract :

"The species pool concept has played a central role in the development of ecological theory for at least 60 yr. Surprisingly, there is little consensus as to how one should define the species pool, and consequently, no systematic approach exists. Because the definition of the species pool is essential to infer the processes that shape ecological communities, there is a strong incentive to develop an ecologically realistic definition of the species pool based on repeatable and transparent analytical approaches. [...] "