Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#ESA2014: Day two, what are we measuring and how?

It's probably in part because I attended sessions that are along similar lines today, but I noticed a common theme played across a number of talks. Ecological data is in some ways becoming very complex - a single analysis may include traits, phylogenetic distances, and taxonomic information, and climate and soil variables, possibly at multiple spatial scales. How to combine disparate data appropriately and how to determine the comparable "scales" across which to measure each variable is more important than ever. But it is still difficult to determine what an appropriate comparison actually is.

Studies of intraspecific variation frequently have to determine how to measure and compare variables. (i.e. Do you measure intraspecific trait variation at the genotype level, the individual level, etc?) For example, in a nice talk by Jessica Abbott, the effects of intraspecific variation in genetic relatedness and trait similarity on intraspecific competition among eelgrass hit upon exactly this point. There was no relationship between trait similarity between genotypes and their degree of genetic relatedness. Traits, not relatedness, were the clearest predictor of competitive success. A number of the talks I saw today incorporated intraspecific variation, including a couple of excellent talks on Daphnia by Sarah Duple and Chris Holmes. Both of the Daphnia talks found evidence of great intraspecific trait variation in the Daphnia but weak relationships between that variation and competitive interactions or diversity. These talks were all nice examples of how empirical work can relate to larger ecological theory, and found fairly mixed evidence for the importance of intraspecific variation. There are many reasons why intraspecific variation is not always strongly tied to ecological processes - intraspecific variation may simply have low explanatory power, for example. But it is also interesting to consider the issues that arise as we ask questions at ever smaller and more precise scales. How do we distinguish a low importance of intraspecific variation, or trait variation, or phylogenetic variation from incorrect scale of measurement? Asking questions with multiple measures opens up new and important issues - how should we measure genetic relatedness to be truly comparable to trait variation at intraspecific or interspecific scales? How does combining mismatched variables (intraspecific trait values with interpolated large scale environmental values, for example) affect the explanatory power of those variables? Given the increasingly multi-faceted nature of ecological analyses it seems important that we consider these questions.

#Lauren Shoemaker
I started Day 2 of ESA attending talks focusing on quantifying coexistence mechanisms and the role of intraspecific competition in coexistence. Yue Li and Peter Chesson started the day presenting work quantifying the storage effect in three desert winter annuals in Arizona’s Goldwater Range. This work highlighted the methodology for quantifying the storage effect in empirical systems—which was refreshing for me since I spend so much time thinking about spatial storage mechanisms in simplified, theoretical systems.

In the same session, Peter Adler presented his work with Chengjin Chu examining the strength of stabilizing niche differences and fitness differences. When stabilizing niche differences are too low relative to fitness differences, competitive exclusion occurs, while high stabilizing niche forces create coexistence. Using long-term demographic data of perennial grasses from five communities, they found that all species exhibited high niche differences and low fitness differences, creating high coexistence strength. For all communities, stabilizing niche differences likely resulted from recruitment. The high niche differentiation highlights the need for a stronger focus on intraspecific density dependence and for more models of coexistence with explicit intraspecific competition.

In the afternoon, Louie Yang argued that ecologists as a whole need to more explicitly consider changes in species interaction through time, especially with increasing effects of climate change. Using an example of 17-year cicada cycles, he showed that questions of “bottom up or top-down” are often really bottom up and then top-down when viewed in a temporally explicit framework. He even ended his talk with an excellent analogy comparing historic artwork and ecology—a hard analogy to pull off!

As an added bonus, I finished the day with a long list of paper citations to look up and read after the conference.

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