Looking through my feed of community ecology papers this month, I couldn’t help but notice that while most tested well-established concepts–density-dependence, niche partitioning, metacommunities, competition, dispersal limitation–there was also–as I suppose is usually true–a subset of papers championing newer, less established ideas.
For example, the article “Applying a regional community concept to forest birds of eastern North America” by Robert Ricklefs, furthers the regional community concept he introduced in 2008. Ricklefs is uncomfortable with how ecologists typically define local communities – i.e as spatially and ecologically discreet entities – and the predominant focus in community ecology on local coexistence. He argues that communities make sense as entities only at a larger scale, taking into account that local communities are not isolated, but instead interact as a function of overlapping ranges and species dispersal. In this paper he applies this concept to Breeding Bird Survey data to examine the distribution and abundance of birds in eastern NA.
Partel, Szava-Kovats, and Zobel are also critical of the predominant focus on local diversity. In their paper “Dark diversity: shedding light on absent species”, they pitch the idea of “dark diversity” as a valid diversity metric. Dark diversity accounts for the number of species which belong to the species pool for a particular habitat in a region but are not actually present in a local community of that habitat type. The resulting value can be used to calculate a dimensionless ratio of local to dark diversity, suitable for comparison of diversity components in dissimilar regions.
Lastly, in “A strong test of a maximum entropy model of trait-based community assembly”, Shipley et al. further test Shipley’s model of Entropy Maximization, using it to predict the composition of communities in the South African fynbos. The model predicts community composition (species identity and relative abundances) through an assumption of random assembly (or entropy maximization) within environmental constraints on species traits.
New ideas are a constant in ecology, but they face stiff competition in an already crowded field. The possible mechanisms of local coexistence, for example, are already a long list. What determines which of these–or any–ideas become entrenched in ecology? The likelihood of a concept becoming established must be a complex function relying on a cost-benefit analysis–what does applying this idea cost compared to the gain in understanding it produces?–further adjusted by intangible variables like timing and the skill and prestige of an idea’s advocate. After all, some ideas require decades to establish properly, requiring changes in the theoretical climate or technical capabilities, for example, neutral theory or spatial ecology. Others seem to catch on immediately. Philosophers have written more cogently on how scientific ideas change and paradigms shift, but as participants in the process, we have a rather unique perspective. After all, as scientists we play an active role in driving these shifts in thought and action. You might argue that the merit of the ecological ideas that become established are as much a reflection on those who accept and institute them, as on those who propose them.