Monday, February 24, 2014

Evolution at smaller and smaller scales: a role for microgeographic adaptation in ecology?

Jonathan L. Richardson, Mark C. Urban, Daniel I. Bolnick, David K. Skelly. 2014. Microgeographic adaptation and the spatial scale of evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19 February 2014.

Among other trends in ecology, it seems that there is a strong trend towards re-integration of ecological and evolutionary dynamics, and also in partitioning ecological dynamics to finer and finer scales (e.g. intraspecific variation). So it was great to see a new TREE article on “Microgeographic adaptation and the spatial scale of evolution”, which seemed to promise to contribute to both topics.

In this paper, Richardson et al. attempt to define and quantify the importance of small-scale adaptive differences that can arise between even neighbouring populations. These are given the name “microgeographic adaptation”, and defined as arising via trait differences across fine spatial scales, which lead to fitness advantages in an individual’s home sites. The obvious question is what spatial scale does 'microgeographic' refer to, and the authors define it very precisely as “the dispersal neighborhood … of the individuals located within a radius extending two standard deviations from the mean of the dispersal kernel of a species”. (More generally they forward an argument for a unit--the ‘wright’--that would measure adaptive divergence through space relative to dispersal neighbourhoods.) The concept of microgeographic adaptation feels like it is putting a pretty fine point on already existing ideas about local adaptation, and the authors acknowledge that it is a special case of adaptation at scales where gene flow is usually assumed to be high. Though they also suggest that microgeographic adaptation has received almost no recognition, it is probably fairer to say that in practice the assumption is that on fine scales, gene flow is large enough to swamp out local selective differences, but many ecologists could name examples of trait differences between populations at close proximity.

From Richardson et al. (2014). One
example of microgeographic adaptations.
Indeed, despite the general disregard to fine-scale evolutionary differences, they note that there are some historical and more recent examples of microgeographic variation. For example, Robert Selander found that despite the lack of physical barriers to movement, mice in neighbouring barns show allelic differences, probably due to territorial behaviour. As you might expect, microgeographic adaptations result when migration is effectively lower than expected given geographic distance and/or selection is stronger (as when neighbouring locations are very dissimilar). A variety of mechanisms are proposed, including the usual suspects – strong natural selection, landscape barriers, habitat selection, etc.

A list of the possible mechanisms leading to microgeographic adaptation is rather less interesting than questions about how to quantify the importance and commonness of microgeographic adaptation, and especially about its implications for ecological processes. At the moment, there are just a few examples and fewer still studies of the implications, making it difficult to say much. Because of either the lack of existing data and studies or else the paper's attempt to be relevant to both evolutionary biologists and ecologists, the vague discussion of microgeographic differences as a source of genetic variation for restoration or response to climate change, and mention of the existing—but primarily theoretical—ecological literature feels limited and unsatisfying. The optimistic view is that this paper might stimulate a greater focus on (fine) spatial scale in evolutionary biology, bringing evolution and ecology closer in terms of shared focus on spatial scale. For me though, the most interesting questions about focusing on smaller and smaller scales (spatial, unit of diversity (intraspecific, etc)) are always about what they can contribute to our understanding. Does complexity at small scales simply disappear as we aggregate to larger and larger scales (a la macroecology) or does it support greater complexity as we scale up, and so merit our attention? 

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