Monday, March 18, 2013

Evolution on an ecological scale

Andrew Gonzalez, Ophélie Ronce, Regis Ferriere, and Michael E. Hochberg. 2013. Evolutionary rescue: an emerging focus at the intersection between ecology and evolution. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 368 (1610).doi: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0404 (Intro to special issue).

David A. Vasseur, Priyanga Amarasekare, Volker H. W. Rudolf, Jonathan M. Levine. 2011. Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics Enable Coexistence via Neighbor-Dependent Selection. The American Naturalist, Vol. 178, No. 5, pp.E96-E109.

Ecology and evolution are often treated as connected but ultimately discrete areas of study. Ecological processes are usually the main source of explanation for ecological patterns and  ecologists may ignore evolutionary processes under the assumption that these are most important over longer time scales than are of interest (e.g. speciation). However, there is also an increasing recognition that rapid evolutionary dynamics can contribute to ecological observations. In a time where rapid changes to climate and habitat are the greatest threats to most species, the suggestion that rapid evolution might play a role in extinction prevention and diversity maintenance is an important one.

Increasingly researchers are exploring this concept. The concept of evolutionary rescue (ER), has been particularly championed by Andy Gonzalez and Graham Bell of McGill University. ER results when evolution occurs fast enough to arrest population declines and allow populations to avoid extinction in the face of changing conditions. Changing conditions resulting in maladapted populations should result in population declines followed by extinction. However, if selection for resistant types (which are present in the population, or result from mutations) occurs, population declines can be countered. The result is a characteristic u-shape curve, showing the initial geometric decline, followed by a geometric increase – escape from extinction is then a balance between rates of evolution and success of resistant types compared to rates of population decline.
From Bell & Gonzalez 2009.
The question of whether evolution may have relevance to population declines is not precisely new, but it is especially relevant given we are in a period of habitat changes and extinction. A special issue of Proc B is focused only ER, on the question of its importance, prevalence, and predictability. Many of the articles extend theory, exploring assumptions about the type of environmental change, type and extent of the threat, presence of dispersal, spatial gradients, etc. A few articles attempt the more difficult task of testing for ER in natural systems and assessing its likely prevalence and value to conservation activities. It is an interesting journal issue and a great example of the importance of context in determining when an idea takes off. The theoretical background for evolutionary rescue has existed for many years, but it took the context of climate change (and perhaps the collaboration of an ecologist and evolutionary biologist?) for it to gain ground as an area of ecological research.

Another interesting paper, this one linking evolutionary dynamics with community coexistence, is from Vasseur et al. (2011). In this case, the authors suggest an evolutionary mechanism that could augment coexistence when ecological conditions allow for niche partitioning and that could allow coexistence when ecological conditions lead to competitive exclusion. If species exhibit tradeoffs between traits that are optimal for intraspecific interactions and traits that are optimal for interspecific interactions, evo-ecological dynamics can produce coexistence. Such tradeoff means that a species will be a superior interspecific competitor when rare and a poor interspecific competitor when common. Such a tradeoff creates neatly alternately selective pressures depending on whether a species is common (fitness declines) or rare (fitness increases). This is presented as a theoretical model, but it seems like in a tractable system one could easily test for changes in ecological and evolutionary pressures as predicted by the model.

No one would argue with the conclusion that a closer relationship between ecology and evolutionary biology would be beneficial for both. But in practice this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. "Evolutionary ecology" as it exists is fairly restricted, and if complaints about seminar topics is to provide a hint, most ecologists feel disconnected from evolutionary topics and vice versa. If evolutionary dynamics are relevant on an ecological scale, it seems that we should at least attempt to understand their prevalence and importance in natural systems.


stevencarlislewalker said...

Thank you for pointing out this brilliant Vasseur paper!

Caroline Tucker said...

Yes! It's a great paper, isn't it? Vasseur was here last week and mentioned it. I'd missed it, so I figured at least a few other people had too.