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.
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.