Sunday, November 6, 2016

What is a community ecologist anyways?

I am organizing a 'community ecology' reading group, and someone asked me whether I didn’t think focusing on communities wasn’t a little restrictive. And no. The thought never crossed my mind. Which I realized is because I internally define community ecology as a large set of things including ‘everything I work on’ :-) When people ask me what I do, I usually say I’m a community ecologist.

Obviously community ecology is the study of ecological communities [“theoretical ideal the complete set of organisms living in a particular place and time as an ecological community sensu lato”, Vellend 2016]. But in practice, it's very difficult to define the boundaries of what a community is (Ricklefs 2008), and the scale of time and space is rather flexible.

So I suppose my working definition has been that a community ecologist researches groups of organisms and understands them in terms of ecological processes. There is flexibility in terms of spatial and temporal scale, number and type of trophic levels, interaction type and number, or response variables of interest. It’s also true that this definition could be encompass much of modern ecology…

On the other hand, a colleague argued that only the specific study of species interactions should be considered as ‘community ecology’: e.g. pollination ecology, predator-prey interactions, competition, probably food web and multi-trophic level interactions. 

Perhaps my definition is so broad as to be uninformative, and my colleague's is too narrow to include all areas. But it is my interest in community ecology that leads me to sometimes think about larger spatial and temporal scales. Maybe that's what community ecologists have in common: the flexibility needed to deal with the complexities of ecological communities.

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