Showing posts with label neutral theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neutral theory. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The contrasting effects of habitat area and heterogeneity on diversity“How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” (Thomas H. Huxley, commenting on the obviousness of Darwin’s theory of natural selection)

Sometimes I read a paper and Huxley’s famous quote seems exceedingly appropriate. Why I say this is that a new idea or concept is presented which seems both so simple and at the same time a potentially powerful explanation of patterns in nature. This was my reaction to a recent paper from Omri Allouche and colleagues published in the Proceedings ofthe National Academy of Science. The paper presents a simple conceptual model, in the same vein as Connell’s classic intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which accounts for large-scale diversity patterns based on aspects of species niche requirements as well as classic stochastic theory. Merging these two aspects is a critical step forward, as in ecology, there has been a tension in explaining diversity patterns between niche-based processes requiring that species exhibit differences in their needs, and stochastic (or neutral) explanations that ignore these differences, but seem to do well at large scales.

The classic stochastic model in ecology, the theory of island biogeography, simply predicted that the number of species increases with the size of an island or habitat, and ultimately is the balance between species colonizing and going extinct. Allouche et al. also assume this stochastic colonization and extinction, such that in a uniform environment, the number of species increases with area. However, they then add the fact that species do not do equally well in different habitats, that is they have specific environmental niches associated with a particular environment. Thus as you increase the amount of heterogeneity in a landscape, you increase the total number of species, because you’ve captured more niches. However, there is a trade-off here. Namely, as you increase the heterogeneity in a landscape, the amount of area for the dominant habitat type decreases, thus reducing the number of species. So if you increase the heterogeneity too much, the individual habitat types will be too small to support large numbers of species and the numbers of species will be less than regions with less heterogeneity –paradoxically.

Their heuristic prediction is that diversity is maximized at intermediate levels of heterogeneity, as long as species have intermediate niche breadths (i.e., they could perhaps use a couple of different habitats). However, if their niche breadth is too narrow (i.e., they can only exist in a single habitat type), then diversity may only decline with increasing heterogeneity. Conversely, if species have very broad niche breadths (i.e., can survive in many different habitats) then the tradeoff vanishes and heterogeneity has little effect on diversity.

They tested this exceedingly simple prediction using European bird data and found that species richness was maximized at intermediate heterogeneity (measured by the variation in elevation). Further, when they classified species into different niche width classes, they found that the relationship between richness and heterogeneity changed was predicted (i.e., strongest for intermediate breadth).

This is a great paper and should have a large impact. It will be exciting to see what other systems fit this pattern and how specific studies later the interpretation or mechanisms in this model.

Allouche, O., Kalyuzhny, M., Moreno-Rueda, G., Pizarro, M., & Kadmon, R. (2012). Area-heterogeneity tradeoff and the diversity of ecological communities Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (43), 17495-17500 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1208652109

Monday, January 30, 2012

Should we still be testing neutral theory? If so, how?

For many ecologists, neutral theory was a (good/bad, you choose) idea that dominated ecology for the last decade but failed to provide the burden of empirical proof necessary for its acceptance. Even its creator Stephen Hubbell  recently suggested that the controversial hypothesis is no longer a plausible description of community structure, going as far to say that it is “good starting point”, a “valuable null model”, and a “useful baseline” (in Etienne et al 2011)

But ideas, when they’re shared, are no longer the sole property of their creators. Other researchers continue to study neutral theory, and despite the apparent consensus that neutral theory is not an important explanation of community structure and dynamics, papers testing neutral theory continue to be published. This leads to an important question: do we still want to test for neutral dynamics? And if we do, how should we approach it, given what we have learned from the past decade of strawman arguments and using pattern-based evidence for processes (e.g. looking at species-area relationships and species abundance distributions)? What empirical evidence would provide strong support for the predictions of neutral theory?

Damselfly larvae
In “Experimental evidence for neutral community dynamics governing an insect assemblage”, Siepielski et al. (2010) attempt to provide a more rigorous test of neutral theory using two Enallagma (damselfly) larvae. Siepielski et al. focus on changes in demographic rates (growth, mortality) in response to changes in species relative and total abundances. In particular, they predicted that if niche differences drive coexistence, increasing a species’ relative abundance should drive lower growth rates and higher mortality, since that species is above its equilibrium; lowered relative abundances should result in higher growth rates and lowered mortality since the species is below its equilibrium density. As a result, species should return to their equilibrial abundances. Raising the total abundances but leaving the relative abundances untouched should have similar demographic responses across species and have no effect on the relative abundances. In contrast, neutral theory predicts that if all species are equal, their demographic rates depend on the density of the entire group (total abundance) and not on each individual species’ relative abundance. Therefore the response of demographic rates to changes in species relative abundances, while the total abundance is held constant, should provide support to either neutral or niche theory.

For two Enallagma sp. larvae Siepielski et al. used cages in the littoral zone of lakes, with cages receiving different treatments of relative abundance and/or total abundance manipulation. The result of these manipulations were that replicates with increased total abundances and constant relative abundances had lowered per-capita growth rates, while replicates with manipulated relative abundances and constant total abundances showed no change in demographic rates. Both species had similar mortality rates across the experimental treatments, although their growth rates differed slightly. From these results, Siepielski et al. concluded that these species are ecologically equivalent.

One of the reasons work (such as this) from Mark McPeek’s lab is interesting is because he is an outlier: someone whose work is deeply rooted in a natural system, and yet who also argues that ecological equivalency seems plausible, and attempts to support that argument. Regardless of whether the Enallagma species are in fact ecologically equivalent, this paper provides an example of how coexistence theory can be more rigorously tested than simply observing species co-ocurrences and concluding species coexistence. Further, it provides some interesting discussion about whether ecological equivalency is possible within functional groups, with niche differences occurring between functional groups (see Leibold and McPeek 2006, and from MacNaughton and Wolf 1970 for similar suggestions). Future work might focus on questions such as how to capture the effects of small niche differences, which, if balanced against very similar fitnesses could explain stable coexistence. In addition, it might be valuable to look at how resources fluctuate and how much overlap there is in resource requirements among species, when looking at how growth and mortality change with species densities.

With Adam Siepielski, Mark McPeek also published the paper “On the evidence for species coexistence: a critique of the coexistence program about the apparently lowered standards for tests of niche-based species coexistence compared to those of neutral theory. What is certainly true is that experimental tests of coexistence theory are often less rigorous than necessary to support any coexistence theory, and should strive to take a more rigorous approach. If nothing else, this will allow criticism of particular theories to focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on how those ideas were tested.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Rumors of community ecology’s death were greatly exaggerated: reflections on Lawton 1999

In 1999, John Lawton, eminent British ecologist, published a lament for the state of community ecology entitled “Are there general laws in ecology?” Cited more than 600 times, Lawton’s paper forced a re-evaluation of community ecology’s value, success, and even future existence. Other scientists at the time seemed to agree, with papers starting with phrases like “Although community ecology is a struggling science…” and “Given the lack of general laws in ecology…”. Lawton appeared to be suggesting that community ecology be abandoned for the generality of macroecology or the structure of population ecology.

An important point to be made is that Lawton was simply making a particularly public expression of ecology’s growing pains. In 1999, ecology was at a crossroads between the traditional approach of in-depth system-based study, and a fairly single-minded focus on competition as an explanation for patterns (e.g., Cooper 1993 ‘The Competition Controversy in Community Ecology’ Biology and Philosophy 8: 359-384), while at the same time there were emergent approaches and explanations like neutrality, macroecology, spatial ecology, ecophylogenetics, and improved computer and molecular methods. There was also growing dissent about ecology’s philosophical approach to ecology (e.g., Peters 1991 ‘A Critique for Ecology’; Haila and Heininen 1995 ‘Ecology: A New Discipline for Disciplining’ Social Text 42: 153-171): ecologists tended to ignore the Popperian approach, which required falsification of existing hypothesis, instead tending to look for support for an existing hypothesis, or at least advocated looking for patterns without considering alternative mechanisms. Not only this, but the applications for ecology were more clear than ever – the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change was meeting , and the ecological consequences of human actions were perhaps more obvious they had ever been. But ecologists were failing at providing solutions –Lawton argued-correctly-that in 1999 ecologists could provide little insight into how a community might change in structure and function in response to changing climate.

Although everyone should read Lawton’s paper, a simple synthesis of his concerns would be this – that community ecology is too contingent, communities are too complex, and therefore community ecology cannot formulate any laws, cannot make predictions, cannot be generalized from one system to another. This makes community ecology suspect as a science (physics being the most common example of an “ideal” science), and certainly not very useful. Lawton suggests that population ecology, where only a few models of growth could explain the majority of species’ dynamics, or macroecology, which focuses on the most general, large-scale patterns, were a better example of how ecology should be practiced.

Community ecology, rather than dying, has experienced an incredible surge in popularity, with a large contingent represented at meetings and in journal publications. Ecology itself is also thriving, as one of the fastest growing departments in universities. So what, if anything, has changed? Has ecology addressed Lawton’s criticisms?

Two major things happened in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, which helped ecologists see beyond this general malaise. The first was that a number of well-thought out alternative ecological mechanisms explaining community membership were published. Before the late 90’s community ecologists looked for evidence of competition in patterns of community composition, either among locales or through time following disturbance. When local competition was insufficient to explain patterns, researchers likely cited, but did not test other mechanisms. Or if they did test other mechanisms, say predation, it was as an alternative, mutually exclusive mechanism. The new publications, drawing on previous ideas and concepts formalized assembly mechanisms like neutral processes or metacommunity dynamics where uneven fitnesses in a heterogeneous landscape can affect local coexistence. More than these as solely alternative mechanisms, these allowed for a synthesis where multiple mechanisms operate simultaneously to affect coexistence. Probably the most emblematic paper of this renewed excitement is Peter Chesson’s 2000 ‘Mechanisms of maintenance of species diversity’ published in Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics. This paper, cited over a thousand times, offers a way forward with a framework that includes competitive and niche differences but can also account for neutral dynamics.

A second major development that rejuvenated ecology was the formation of technological and statistical tools engendering broad-scale synthetic research. Suddenly the search for general explanations – Lawton’s most piercing criticism - became more common and more successful. With the advent of on-line databases, meta-analytic procedures and centers (e.g., the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) that foster synthetic research, ecologists routinely test hypotheses that transcend local idiosyncrasies. Often, the capstone publication on a particular hypothesis is no longer a seminal experiment, but rather a meta-analysis that is combines all the available information to assess how strongly and how often a particular mechanism affects patterns.

While these theoretical and technological developments have been essential ingredients in this ecological rejuvenation, there has also been a subtle shift the philosophical approach to what it is ecological theory can and should do. Criticism in the 1990’s (e.g., Peters 1991 ‘A Critique for Ecology’) centered on the inability of ecological theory to make accurate predictions. The concept of science common in ecology in the 1990’s was that a rigorous, precise science (i.e., with laws) results in the ability to accurately predict species composition and species abundances given a set of mechanisms. This view of ecological science has been criticized as simplistic ‘physics-envy’ (e.g., see Massimo Pigliucci’s PhD dissertation ‘Dangerous habits: examining the philosophical baggage of biological research’published by the University of Tennessee in 2003). The subtle philosophical change has been a move from law=prediction to law=understanding. This is as true for physics as it is for ecology. We don’t expect a physicist to predict precisely where a falling feather will land, but we do expect to totally understand why it landed where it did based on fundamental processes. (for more on the contrast of prediction and understanding, see Wilhelm Windelband’s nomothetic and idiographic knowledge)

While the feather example above is simplistic, it is telling. In reality a physicist can produce probability contours of where the feather is likely to land, which could be very focused on a calm day or broad on a windy one. This is exactly what ecologists do. Once they understand how differing mechanisms come together to shape diversity, they make probabilistic predictions about the outcome of a set of known mechanisms.

Ecology today is as vibrant as ever. This is not a result of finding new laws that proved Lawton incorrect. Rather, ecologists now have a more sophisticated understanding of how various mechanisms operate in concert to shape diversity. Moreover, conceptual, technological and philosophical revolutions have fundamentally changed what ecologists do and what they are trying to explain. It is a great time to be an ecologist.

Lawton, J. H. (1999). Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos, 84(2), 177-192.

By Marc Cadotte and Caroline Tucker

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Metacommunity data and theory: the tortoise and the hare

Empirical approaches to metacommunities: a review and comparison with theory
Logue et al. 2011

The recognition that community composition is a function of both local and regional-scale processes, meaning that a community cannot be understood in isolation from the network of communities with which it interacts, is the fundamental idea behind metacommunity ecology. In a relatively short period of time, metacommunity ecology has integrated concepts from spatial ecology, metapopulation ecology, and community ecology with novel ideas, and developed a strong body of theory. However, metacommunity theory has advanced much more rapidly than empirical tests of that theory. In an interesting review in TREE, Logue et al. examine whether empirical data needs to catch up with the pace of theory development, or whether theory is moving too fast to incorporate the information available from empirical data.

The types of systems used in the 34 experimental and 74 observational studies that Logue et al. found were very limited – the most common experimental approach involved setting up aquatic microcosms of unicellular organisms.* Observational studies similarly tested microorganisms, usually in aquatic systems. The organisms so beloved in the rest of community ecology (plants? vertebrates?) barely feature. Most studies focus on aquatic systems composed of multiple patches (such as microcosms, ponds, pitcher plant communities) because systems with discrete boundaries are more amenable to testing current theory. However, natural systems are rarely configured into a clear “patch” versus “matrix” dichotomy. Instead they are complex and heterogeneous, and may lack clear boundaries.

Dynamics in metacommunities are generally described using four dominant paradigms: mass-effects, species sorting, neutral perspective, or patch-dynamics. These paradigms reflect the most important processes structuring communities, that is, either dispersal between communities, environmental differences between communities, dynamics driven by the tenets of neutral theory, or extinction and colonization, respectively. Strikingly, experimental studies mostly tested for mass-effects or patch dynamics, and observational studies mostly tested for species-sorting and mass effects paradigms. The neutral paradigm was rarely tested in any type of study. Logue et al. found that many studies had difficulty designing experiments that tested for evidence of specific paradigms, because natural communities are much more complex than the simple paradigms suggest. Most studies that did test for evidence of particular paradigms found evidence for multiple paradigms or had difficulty disentangling different mechanisms.

The metacommunity theory that has developed in the last five years is among the most exciting and interesting work in ecology. However, the slower pace of experimental work means that theory has developed with little feedback. For example, Logue et al. make a strong argument that the results from these studies suggest that it is time to integrate the four-paradigm system into a single, comprehensive framework (see figure). Theory is only valuable if it’s useful - this paper is an important reminder that there is an important feedback loop between theory and data, and successful science requires input from both.

*Important disclaimer: at this very moment I'm running aquatic microcosms of microscopic protists in the lab. We all have room for improvment. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Happy 10th birthday, neutral theory!

Rosindell, Hubbell, and Etienne. (2011). The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography at age ten.

I would argue that neutral theory is not only the most controversial idea, but also the most successful idea to permeate community ecology in the last ten years. A quick keyword search suggests that ~30 ecological papers related to the topic were published in the last year, including some with titles still reflecting the controversy; “Different but equal: the implausible assumption at the heart of neutral theory”. Neutral theory makes a seemingly unreasonable assumption—that species identity doesn’t matter—and yet seems to predict species-area relationships and species abundance distributions as well or better than niche theory does. This made it an infuriating challenge for many ecologists. The number and quality of papers that it inspired—both in support and opposition—are a reminder that disagreement is good for science.

It’s been a decade since the publication of “The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography”, in which Steve Hubbell proposed a controversial model in which coexistence results from drift, dispersal and speciation, rather than ecological differences between species. To mark this anniversary, a review in TREE by James Rosindell, Stephen Hubbell, and Rampal Etienne reflects on neutral theory’s first ten years, and examine the influence neutral theory has had in many areas of community ecology. The authors also note that some of the limitations of neutral theory can be dealt with by extending the classic formulation of the model, so that unrealistic assumptions related to spatial structure, speciation rates, or the zero-sum assumption can be relaxed. The excessive interest in neutral theory’s species-abundance predictions left its other predictions unexamined, and there is still room for tests of how neutral theory informs species-time relationships, modes of speciation, and even conservation decisions.

Despite these accomplishments, the review is remarkably subdued, underlined by statements such as neutral theory is a “good starting point”, a “valuable null model”, and a “useful baseline”. However, it seems unnecessary to state, as some have, that "neutral theory is dead". Its legacy, captured in the final paragraphs, is still incredibly important: “…niches have dominated our attention and left less obvious, but still important processes forgotten… Perhaps the most important contribution of neutral theory has been to highlight the key roles of dispersal limitation, speciation and ecological drift, by showing how much can be explained by these processes alone...”

George Box said it best: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.