Posted by: cjlortie | November 12, 2013

Upping your theory game by Samuel M. Scheiner

Recently I published an analysis of the extent to which the ecological literature engages with theory ( One part of that analysis was a comparison of current journals. Among the ecology journals, Oikos scored the highest with 73% of the papers in the 2012 June and July issues including some aspect of theory development or testing. But we can all do better. Here are some ways to increase the theory engagement of your papers.

First ask yourself, “What theory does my paper relate to?” Even if your paper is a description of some system, that description must relate to the facts that underpin some theory. Theories rely on generalizations. Does this particular instance help strengthen a generalization? Does it dispute a generalization? Is the state of knowledge such that generalizations are uncertain? If so, how does this paper reduce that uncertainty? Then make that theory and those generalizations guideposts for the entire paper.

But you say, “There is no formal theory for this question, just a general understanding.” That general understanding is the theory, it simply lacks formalization. In the parlance of the theory structure presented by Mike Willig and myself, no constitutive theory exists. Here is an opportunity for you to create one. Formalizing a constitutive theory is not difficult. For examples of how to do this, see our book (Scheiner and Willig. 2011. The Theory of Ecology. University of Chicago Press). If there are already numerous models relating to the topic, it is an exercise in finding their common threads. That is the process that we went through with our first constitutive theory (Scheiner and Willig. 2005. Am. Nat. 166:458-469). For more nascent fields, you may have to work a bit harder to discern those threads. In the end you will have a list of rules and generalization (“propositions” in our terminology) against which to compare your data.

As a reviewer of papers, ask if a paper engages in theory right at the beginning. My tally of “no theory” papers included many for which formal theories exist, but no explicit connection was made. Make sure that this happens. If the introduction of the paper does not explicitly name a theory, insist that it do so. We should be asking more of ourselves. Ecology is a mature discipline rich in theories. Our science will only be strengthened by all of us doing more to engage with theory and insisting that our colleagues do likewise.

Posted by: oikosasa | November 12, 2013

Editor’s choice November 3.0

Last week, EiC Chris Lortie presented the editor’s choice papers for the November issue. Below you find the nice figure and table from one of them, “Dispersal and species’ responses to climate change”, by Travis et al. And remember, Editor’s choice papers are freely available online throughout the month!


Table 1: Effects of climate change on individual dispersal. Climate change is predicted to lead to lower windspeeds (A), higher temperatures (B), increased frequency of storms (C), flooding (D), reduced snow cover (E), and changed rainfall (F) (1, 2). Each of these climatic factors has been shown to affect dispersal in a range of organisms, either through a direct impact on the individual during dispersal, or indirectly by altering the biophysical environment or the state of the dispersing organism. Key empirical examples of these effects are described with the arrow (    decrease;     increase) describing how predicted changes in specific climatic factors would alter the propensity to emigrate or the distance dispersed during transfer.


Figure 3: Dispersal will be the heart of a new generation of process-based models developed to predict, and inform the management of, species’ responses to environmental change. By incorporating dispersal together with an explicit representation of population dynamics, models will become much better able to simulate the spatio-temporal dynamics of species under alternative future climate and land-use scenarios. To date, most projections of biodiversity responses to climate change have been made using all or nothing dispersal with fewer examples of nearest-neighbour dispersal or statistical dispersal kernels. While more detailed mechanistic dispersal models have been developed both for animal and plant dispersal, they have yet to be used extensively in the climate change field. In part this is due to the substantial challenges faced with these more sophisticated models, both in terms of the data needs for parameterisation and the greater computation needs of these more complex approaches. We argue that incorporating greater realism in the dispersal process will result in improved predictive capability, particularly when there are likely to be synergistic impacts of climate and land use change.

[Image credits: Corine Land Cover (land cover map); Wordclim (climate map); James Bullock (bustard); María Triviño (observed and predicted maps of bustard distribution)]

Posted by: oikosasa | November 8, 2013

Reminder: Photo competition- Oikos cover 2014

A few days left to submit your ecology-photo!

Will your photo be on the Oikos cover 2014?

We seek photos illustrating the Oikos’ goal of Synthesising Ecology or demonstrating ecology in action (e.g. processes or interactions), not only a single organism or a landscape.

Please send your photos together with the  oikos-photo-competition-form14 to, with Photo competetion as subject, before November 10th 2013. The winner will be awarded a book price from Amazon for a value of 100 Euro. The winning photo will be at the cover of all issues of Oikos from during 2014.

Competition Rules:

Entries must be digital images, submitted electronically, in jpg or tiff-format. Images must be available in 300 ppi.

Digital enhancements must be kept to a minimum and must be declared. Both the original and the enhanced image must be submitted.

File names must include appplicant’s surname.

Photos must be accompanied by an entry form that describes illustrated species and scenes. Download the oikos-photo-competition-form14

A prize committee consisting of Managing Editor, Editor in Chief, deputy editors, Technical Editor of Oikos and the Director of the Oikos Editorial Office, will judge which photo that best suits our requests. The decision by the committee is final.

All submissions will be entered under a Creative Commons License and will be displayed on Oikos webpage and social media and may be used  for commercial purposes. Download Creative Commons License here.

Oikos takes no responsibility for submitted images being lost, damaged or dealyed.

How herbivores and nutrient interact in grassland communities is studied in the early View paper “Multiple nutrients and herbivores interact to govern diversity, productivity, composition, and infection in a successional grassland” by Elizabeth T. Borer and co-workers. Here’s Elizabeth’s summary of the paper:


We have all heard about the health benefits of a balanced diet, and it turns out that nutritional balance matters in ecosystems, too. While most research examining nutrient effects on ecosystems has focused on one or two nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, humans are concurrently changing the supply rates and ratios of many different nutrients, creating the possibility for complex effects on ecosystems and the services they provide.  We found that the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus supplied to a grassland ecosystem had larger impacts on infection by a common crop disease than any single major nutrient alone. Grassland net production increased with nitrogen fertilization, but consumption of plants by a common grassland herbivore, the pocket gopher, caused net grassland production to decline with fertilization. Single factor studies would not have uncovered these and other relationships even though such relationships are critical for effective predictions of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in a world in which human activities are simultaneously changing herbivore abundance and the relative supply of many growth-limiting nutrients.


Posted by: cjlortie | October 29, 2013

Editor’s Choice November: Indirect interactions

Indirect interactions are one of my current favorite topics. So fascinating, so elusive, simple in theory, but easily construed. This was the second editor’s choice for November:

Alexander, M. E., Dick, J. T. A. and O’Connor, N. E. 2013. Trait-mediated indirect interactions in a marine intertidal system as quantified by functional responses. – Oikos 122: 1521-1531.

doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2013.00472.x

Trait-mediated indirect interactions are tested in a highly tractable system in this study. However, a very elegant experimental design was executed to explore whether habitat complexity was important to the functional response expressed by predators. Three species were used in total (2 predators and 1 prey species) and experimental arenas were used (Fig 1). Diet cues and responses to the other species were examined in petri dishes with stones glued to the bottom.  Very clever! I would love to see a real photo of the design or videos of the various activity levels reported.

Novel synthesis
This study was an example of novel synthesis for the following reasons.
The design was superb.
The ideas, terms (such as density-mediated indirect interactions versus trait mediated), and predictions were extremely well developed and very precise.
Simple versus complex habitats was tested thereby addressing a major and ongoing theme of context dependence in ecology and evolution.
Density and indirect interactions are well modeled in the study.

Ecologically, the findings were significant in that habitat complexity is shown to mediate population stability. Super simple spoiler: in simple habitats, trait-mediated indirect interactions may destabilize prey populations whilst in complex habitats regulation of intermediate consumers may promote prey stability. Fantastic. I wonder how we could apply this approach to terrestrial systems.

Amphipoda (not actual size):



Sample petri dish arenas in general:


Posted by: cjlortie | October 29, 2013

Editor’s choice November: Dispersal and climate change.

Will climate change ever have positive impacts :) In many respects, climate change and invasive species both challenge our notions of community assembly and the relative importance of various drivers in structuring both populations and communities. For the first editor’s choice for November, we selected the following paper.

Travis, J. M. J., Delgado, M., Bocedi, G., Baguette, M., Bartoń, K., Bonte, D., Boulangeat, I., Hodgson, J. A., Kubisch, A., Penteriani, V., Saastamoinen, M., Stevens, V. M. and Bullock, J. M. 2013. Dispersal and species’ responses to climate change. – Oikos 122: 1532-1540.

doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2013.00399.x

Rationale & novel synthesis
Dispersal describes a fascinating set of processes in ecology and evolution. However, the semantics are not that well articulated. In this article, the terminology and scope of dispersal is well developed. Importantly, the capacity for dispersal to evolve under climate is examined and the reciprocal concept, how dispersal should be included in predictive models is also summarized. The direct and indirect causes of changed dispersal are summarized with an excellent graphic, and the predicted impacts on emigration and transfer phases are provided separately. A central role for dispersal is proposed for considering the climate change versus land use drivers on the realized population dynamics. I like this idea. I am not an dispersal expert at the scale but this seemed like a very reasonable,if not challenging, novel conceptual model.

Five priority areas for conservation are identified.
1. Protocols must be developed to gather/aggregate high-res datasets on dispersal at all scales.
2. Mechanistic movement models and more realistic models in general must now be used.
3. Predictive models must now included more nuanced handling of within species variation.
4. Include relationships between evolution and dispersal in models when examining trait sets (and plasticity, selection processes, etc).
5. Use models to most effectively intervene in managed dispersal processes.


Posted by: oikosasa | October 28, 2013

Measuring the strength of trade-offs

A new method to measure the strength of trade-offs is presented and tested in the Early View paper “A standardized approach to estimate life history tradeoffs in evolutionary ecology” by Sandra Hamel and co-workers. Here’s Sandra’s summary of the paper:

A major goal of life-history studies is to understand how natural selection shapes individual fitness-related traits, such as growth, reproduction, and survival. So far, a large number of studies have demonstrated the occurrence of many trade-offs (e.g. number vs. size of offspring, age at first reproduction vs. longevity), but most researches have concentrated on detecting trade-offs – that is answering “yes” or “no” to the question “Is there a trade-off between trait A and trait B”. Although these studies are fundamental because they have provided substantial empirical evidence for the existence of trade-offs, they are somewhat limited. For instance, if we wish to understand how different life-history strategies evolve among different species, among populations of the same species, or among individuals of the same population, we need to be able to tell not only whether there is or not a trade-off, but most importantly what is the strength of this trade-off.

Measuring the strength of a trade-off would be highly valuable for determining its relative importance. For example, to determine whether the trade-off between current and future reproduction is stronger in shorter- vs. longer-lived species, we need to measure the strength of this trade-off in different species. Within a single species, we might also want to determine whether trade-offs among growth and survival traits are stronger than trade-offs among growth and reproductive traits, which could allow us to better understand where the strongest selection pressures occur.

Our paper therefore presents a method to measure the strength of trade-offs. Although some methods have been used previously to quantify trade-offs, these methods cannot be applied with respect to binary traits – that is traits usually described by “yes/no”. Indeed, analyses of binary data present many analytical issues and thereby are more complex and often more limited compared with other types of data. Nevertheless, binary traits are central in life histories (e.g. probability of reproduction, nesting success, offspring survival), and so we need a method that can be applied to any type of traits to be able to compare the importance of different life-history trade-offs. Our paper provides such a standardized approach, which also accounts for the confounding effects of both environmental variation in resource availability and individual heterogeneity.

We illustrate the large potential of our approach by applying our method to longitudinal data from roe deer and mountain goats. Out of seven trade-offs measured, the strongest was observed between current and future parturition in mountain goats, a capital breeder, whereas this trade-off did not occur and rather showed a weak positive effect in roe deer, an income breeder. Although the trade-offs presented are only a few examples in two species, they suggest that the between-species differences might result from different tactics of energy allocation to reproduction. Most importantly, these examples illustrate how our method can be used to compare the relative importance of different trade-offs, and how it opens the door to a deeper understanding of the evolution of life-history traits in free-ranging populations.

Mountain goat sucklingroe deer ecographie

The pictures represent the two species used in the examples. On one picture we have a 14 year-old mountain goat female nursing her kid. On the other picture we have a roe deer female that is being checked for pregnancy with an ultrasonic scanner seen in the background.

Posted by: oikosasa | October 25, 2013

Can plants make a decision?

Plants that make active decisions? Read more in the Early View paper “Informed dispersal in plants: Heterosperma pinnatum (Asteraceae) adjusts its dispersal mode to escape from competition and water stress” by Carlos Martorell and Marcella Martinez-Lopez. Here’s their summary of the paper:

We all know someone who has migrated to a wealthy country because social or economic conditions in her/his homeland are harsh. Among animals the same phenomenon occurs, sometimes taking the form of huge migrations away from areas that are seasonally adverse because they are too cold or too dry. But what about plants? We all know that plants can move from one place into another when they are seeds, but it would appear that they are unable of judging whether it is profitable to stay in their natal site or to migrate in search of a better place. To do so, plants, like animals, need to gather and process information about their environment. The small annual plant Heterosperma pinnatum does exactly so. When the environment in which it grows is too dry, it promotes the long-distance dispersal of its seeds. The same happens in crowded areas where competition for the available resources is strong. In this way, its descendants may find more favorable places to live in. The mechanism is quite simple: H. pinnatum produces two different kinds of fruit, one that has hooks that become attached to animal fur and thus can travel very large distances, and another kind that lacks dispersal structures and thus remains in the close vicinity of the mother plant. By regulating the proportion of each type of fruit depending on environmental conditions, this plant is able to decide whether its descendants will continue to exploit the local resources or else face the risks of long-distance travel in search for a place where they may have better chances to survive and reproduce.

Different fruits of Heterosperma pinnatum. Left: an unawned fruit of the type that usually remains some 10–20 cm from the mother plant. Right: a fruit with awns on top of a long beak that projects away from the mother plant. When an animal passes by, the exposed awns become attached to its fur and the fruit is dispersed over a long distance. Middle: an intermediate fruit with awns but no beak. Photo: LFVV Boullosa.

Different fruits of Heterosperma pinnatum. Left: an unawned fruit of the type that usually remains some 10–20 cm from the mother plant. Right: a fruit with awns on top of a long beak that projects away from the mother plant. When an animal passes by, the exposed awns become attached to its fur and the fruit is dispersed over a long distance. Middle: an intermediate fruit with awns but no beak. Photo: LFVV Boullosa.

Posted by: oikosasa | October 22, 2013

Safer with close neighbors

Does new-density increase or decrease predation rate? Find out in the new Early View paper “Adaptive nest clustering and density-dependent nest survival in dabbling ducks” by Kevin M. Ringelman and co-workers. Here’s Kevin’s summary of the paper:

IMG_0421Many wildlife populations are regulated by density dependence: when populations become very large, survival and recruitment rates tend to decline.  In North American waterfowl, density dependence is often observed at continental scales, and nest predation has long been implicated as a key factor driving this pattern.  Predators may aggregate in areas of high nest density, and can reduce nest success to the point where it limits population growth.  However, despite extensive research on this topic, it remains unclear if and how nest density influences predation rates.  Part of this confusion may have arisen because previous studies have examined density-dependent predation at relatively large spatial and temporal scales.  To address this, we used three years of data on nest survival of two species of waterfowl, Mallards and Gadwall, to more fully explore the relationship between small-scale patterns of nest clustering and nest survival. 


Throughout the season, we found that the distribution of nests was consistently clustered at small spatial scales (~50 – 400 m), especially for Mallard nests, and that this pattern was robust to yearly variation in nest density and the intensity of predation.  We also showed that nests within a cluster had lower predation rates, which runs counter to the general assumption that predators are attracted to areas of high nest density.  Because the predators at our study site probably only depredate duck nests incidentally, nesting a group could effectively dilute predation risk from predators that are “just passing through.”


Posted by: oikosasa | October 18, 2013

Crowding effects on indfidelity

How density effects reproductive success and extra pair-paternity is studied in the new Early View paper “Form, function and consequences of density dependence in a long-distance migratory bird” by Ann E. McKellar and co-workers. Below is Ann’s summary of the study:

The negative effects of an increasing population density on reproductive output have long been recognized in many animals, including migratory birds. As breeding density increases, territory sizes generally decrease, causing crowding and increasing neighbour-neighbour interactions, which can lead to decreases in rates of foraging and chick feeding, and increases in rates of nest predation. Such density-dependent processes can thus produce negative feedbacks which contribute to population regulation and the general stability of population size, since periods of high population density will reduce overall breeding success, and vice versa.

Moreover, population density can affect mating tactics. Rates of extra-pair copulations often increase with population density, thus providing an additional challenge to the reproductive fitness of males residing in dense areas.

Interestingly, the density dependence of demography and behaviour are rarely studied simultaneously. And yet such a holistic view is important because individual behaviours can influence population demographics, which can then feed back into the success of individual behaviours. These types of behavioural-demographic loops are no trivial matter, as modeling exercises have shown that they may influence the probability of population extinction.

We examined the density dependence of reproductive success and extra-pair paternity at a long-term study site of breeding American redstarts in Ontario, Canada. We found that greater breeding density was associated with reduced reproductive success, likely as a result of increased nest predation, and increased rates of extra-pair paternity. Overall, these findings contribute to a broader understanding of the selective pressures and regulatory mechanisms acting on migratory birds, from the individual up to the population level.


Posted by: oikosasa | October 15, 2013

Like a missile attack on the ecosystem

The resilience of eco systems is studied in the new Early View paper “A new approach for rapid detection of nearby thresholds in ecosystem time series” by Stephen R. Carpenter and co-workers, in Oikos. Below is Stephen’s summary of the study:

When is the disappearance of a fish population like a missile attack? During the Cold War, scientists developed sensitive methods for detecting the radar signature of incoming missiles. More recently, ecologists have discovered that ecosystems display statistical signatures of changing resilience. The evidence of changing resilience is found in detailed observations that can be automated, like the signals from a radar installation.

Changing climate, land use, or chemical pollution can be as harmful to ecosystems as a missile impact. Gradual changes in climate  or other factors can erode resilience and lead to catastrophic changes. Conversion of a rangeland to a desert, collapse of a fishery, or explosion of toxic algae in a lake are accompanied by loss of resilience as an ecosystem is driven past a critical threshold.

When a complex system approaches a critical threshold, its behavior becomes more variable. Close to the threshold, resilience is low and variability is high. Therefore it might be possible to infer changes in resilience from changes in variability.

Research on lakes has shown that water chemistry, concentrations of algae, and even movements of animals become more variable as resilience declines. Some of these changes can be measured by new technology, such as the instruments mounted on the buoy shown in the photo


Our research team adapted the missile-detection methods to data from a lake that was manipulated to drive it slowly over a threshold. We gradually added largemouth bass to the lake to erode the resilience of minnows and other small fish that are prey to the bass. We found that variability increased in spatial pattern of minnows, abundance of small grazing animals in the water, concentration of algae, concentration of oxygen, and acidity of the water. In the Oikos paper, we applied the method to time series of chlorophyll, which is related only indirectly to the change in the fish. The growing variability of chlorophyll was the equivalent of a missile image on a radar screen.

About a year after the rising variability was detected, the old food chain of the lake collapsed and was replaced by a new food chain. The new food chain had no minnows, abundant grazers and very low concentrations of algae.

Although largemouth bass and missiles are quite different, both of them can completely transform their targets. The research shows how insights from one area of science can be applied in a new way. Perhaps missile-detection methods will one day monitor the resilience of lakes and other ecosystems in a changing world.

Posted by: oikosasa | October 11, 2013

Where am I and Why?

In the Early view Oikos paper “Where am I and Why? Synthesizing range biology and the eco-evolutionary dynamics of dispersal”, Alexander Kubisch, Robert D. Holt, Hans Joachim Poethke and Emanuel A. Fronhofer investigate the emergence of species’ geographic ranges and the many different forces acting on it. Here is their summary:

The distribution of species in space and time is one of the oldest puzzles in ecology. Already Charles Darwin pointed this out over 150 years ago, when he asked: “Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare?” (Darwin 1859). And still, although much research has been invested into that topic since the times of Darwin, we still do not comprehensively understand the formation of any given species’ range.

In this paper we provide an overview of the manifold eco-evolutionary forces, which – in a metapopulation context – determine the formation of species’ ranges. Based on the idea that colonizations and local extinctions are the crucial determinants of an emerging range limit, we highlight the importance of dispersal evolution in this context. It is well known that dispersal of species is highly plastic and subject to strong evolutionary changes. However, this fact is still often ignored when distributions of species are investigated. To clarify the influences of dispersal on range formation, we organize relevant forces acting on all hierarchical levels, ranging from the landscape via genes, individuals and populations to communities, in a framework. In combination with novel simulation results this synthesis brings together the multiple interactions between these factors and forces, which may lead to high levels of complexity and non-linearity.

This contribution will build the core of an upcoming virtual special issue of Oikos, in which a compilation of studies on several aspects affecting range formation and spatial ecology will highlight and summarize the described complexities and non-linearities, which challenge our understanding of species’ distributions. Synthesizing the factors and forces affecting range formation and highlighting the importance of dispersal evolution will surely prove to be helpful in advancing our knowledge and mechanistic understanding of species’ geographic ranges.


Posted by: oikosasa | October 8, 2013

Multi-scale co-ocurrence patterns in India

How species associate with each other and other co-ocurrence patterns have been studied by Mahi Puri and colleagues along the west coast of India. Read the new Early View paper here:  “Multi-scale patterns in co-occurrence of rocky inter-tidal gastropods along the west coast of India

Below is a short summary by Mahi Puri:

The study was carried out as a Master’s thesis, which meant it had to be completed within a period of 6 months. The fieldwork component was only half of that duration! Having previously never worked on marine and inter-tidal fauna, I was eager to learn about this ecosystem. Most of the classical literature on intertidal fauna is based on experimental work to determine relationships between different taxa and species, done at patch level or small spatial scales. Unfortunately there has been little such work on marine ecosystems in India, though it has a really long coastline (8100 km); most of the work is either descriptive in nature or based on physiological condition affecting the distribution of species. I was interested in looking at association patterns among different species at the community level at much broader scales (essentially examine pairs of species that competed or co-occurred with one another), incorporating the expanse of the Indian west coast.

Because of the large scale of the study and the fact that we were dealing with the entire community and not just a few select species, it was not logistically feasible to incorporate experiments in this study. Based on Jared Diamond’s work on assembly rules and Nicholas Gotelli’s analytical approach (i.e. null model analysis) which did not require experiments to assess association patterns among different species, our study was designed to cover 12 sites spread across nearly 1100 km of the Indian west coast. All the study sites were rocky beaches and we looked at gastropod species occupying these rocky intertidal habitats.

We found non-random patterns of species association at large spatial scales indicating that community assembly is not determined by random factors such as tidal drift. Most pairs of species competed with one another, although the pairs with significant associations co-occurred. We also found pairs of some species displaying different association patterns in different locations i.e. they competed in some locations but co-occurred in others. This study highlights the importance of examining general patterns and of using observational studies to gain insights at multiple scales.

What effect does the moon actually have on us? And on animal populations? Find out more in the new Early View paper “Linking ‘10-year’ herbivore cycles to the lunisolar oscillation: the cosmic ray hypothesis” by Vidar Selås. Below, is Vidar’s summary of the study:


The famous “10-year” population cycles of the snowshoe hare and its specialist predator, the Canada lynx, are commonly interpreted as a combined effect of predation and overgrazing. However, these mechanisms cannot explain the consistent cycle period. Herbert Archibald showed that the mean cycle period is 9.3 years, corresponding to the half period of a full 360° rotation of the Moon’s orbital plane. The same period is apparent in a 120-yr time series for the autumnal moth in Fennoscandia and an 1145-yr time series for the larch budmoth in the Alps.


According to Thomas C. R. White, stress factors that require increased mobilization of proteins in plants may increase protein availability above the critical threshold for herbivores. As pointed out by Charles H. Smith, hare cycles are most pronounced in areas with low protection against cosmic rays. Because repair of damages caused by cosmic rays require protein mobilization in plants, and cosmic ray fluxes are affected by the position of the Moon, cosmic rays may be the link between the lunar and herbivore cycles.

Cosmic rays are high-speed charged particles (mainly protons), which are deflected by a sufficiently strong magnetic field and absorbed by a sufficiently thick air layer. The protection provided by the Sun’s magnetic field, which reaches far beyond the Earth’s orbit, fluctuates with the 11-yr solar cycle. The protection provided by the Earth’s magnetic field decreases from equator to the magnetic poles, whereas the protection provided by the Earth’s atmosphere decreases with elevation.

In the atmosphere, secondary cosmic rays are created by collisions between primary cosmic rays and air molecules. Because the most important secondary cosmic rays, muons, are short-lived, only protons with sufficiently high speed are able to produce muons that reach the ground. When eclipses occur close to solstice, which happens at 9.3-yr intervals, the Moon enhances the Sun-Earth magnetic connection, so that more solar energetic particles hit the Earth’s magnetic field. This results in increased temperatures and an expansion of the atmosphere, making it more difficult for muons to reach the ground. The effect of the Moon is probably most important in areas where the protection against cosmic rays is low. In areas with better protection, the 11-yr solar signal would be expected to prevail.


Posted by: oikosasa | October 1, 2013

Temperature variability and population dynamics

A new theoretical model to better study of the role temperature variability plays on individual performance and population dynamics, is presented in the new Early View paper “The role of temperature variability on insect performance and population dynamics in a warming world” by Sergio A. Estay et al.

Watch Sergio’s summary of the study on Youtube:

Posted by: oikosasa | September 24, 2013

Ecological periodic tables

Can ecological patterns be organized in a “Periodic table”? Find out in the Early View paper  “Ecological periodic tables: in principle and practice” by  Steven P. Ferraro.

Watch Steven’s talk about it here:

and look at the slides from a talk about it here:


Posted by: oikosasa | September 20, 2013

Mind your “girth”!

What body condition index is best? Studied for mice in the new Early View paper by Marta K Labocha and co-workers. Below is a summary by Marta:

In humans, BMI (or the body mass index) is a widely used indicator of a person’s body fat.  In animals other than humans, body fat is also important because animals with more fat typically have greater energy reserves which may allow them to better cope with stressful conditions.   In animals, these indicators of body fat (and sometime other indicators of animal quality) are called condition indices.  These condition indices are typically determined from body measurements, but exactly which measurements to use is both unclear and a topic of keen interest.  Many conditions indices are used without being tested for their accuracy.  To test these indices, we compared how well a broad range of body condition indices predicted body fat content in mice Mus musculus. We also compared the performance of these condition indices with a statistical technique, multiple regression of several morphometric variables (body measurements) on body fat content. Multiple regressions incorporating pelvic circumference (i.e., girth at the iliac crests –around the widest part of the hips) were the best predictors of body fat content and were better than any of the condition indices. So, perhaps not surprisingly, mice with bigger waists are fatter.  What is surprising is that this method has not been used before for mice.  Our results suggest a way to improve condition mass indices for mice, and our methods may be useful for other animals as well.

Posted by: oikosasa | September 13, 2013

Dispersal at the heart of our thinking

Read Justin Travis’ and co-workers’ Forum paper “Dispersal and species’ responses to climate change” in Oikos Early View. Below is Justin’s background story to the paper:

Over the last decade or so there have been a series of meetings and workshops involving individuals interested in a broad range of issues related to causes and consequences of dispersal. These have involved people focused on a range of animal and plant systems, adopting field and lab based approaches and also including people developing models for theory and also for prediction. One of the group’s recent meetings took place immediately after the European Ecological Federation Congress in Avila held in 2011. Maria Delgado had organised a casa for us in a tiny village called Tabladillos, close to Segovia. Our objective was to collectively evaluate how dispersal is likely to be impacted by climate change and also how dispersal, and changes in dispersal, are likely to impact species’ responses to climate change.  After an excellent few days, full of interesting discussion, plenty of relaxing in the sun, BBQs and fine Spanish wine (see photo 2) we left with a first rough draft of a manuscript and a long list of allocated tasks.

Is the Oikos chief editor the only one working? Dries is busy handling manuscripts while James and Maria dream of seeds and eagle owls, respectively!

Is the Oikos chief editor the only one working? Dries is busy handling manuscripts while James and Maria dream of seeds and eagle owls, respectively!

Kamil’s photographic trickery captures the group enjoying an evening meal!

Kamil’s photographic trickery captures the group enjoying an evening meal!

The final result of this team effort (see photo 3) is now published by Oikos and we hope it serves to emphasise just how important it is to increase our understanding of the eco-evolutionary dynamics of dispersal under climate change for understanding how species will fare over the coming decades.

The workshop participants with our canine mascot, Karhu!

The workshop participants with our canine mascot, Karhu!

We argue that it is particularly important that conservation actions are founded on a better understanding of dispersal. There is already a large body of knowledge on this key process that can inform current management plans but important knowledge gaps remain where future research is required. Finally, not wanting to miss an obvious chance for advertisement, the next meeting organised by the informal dispersal working group will be in Aberdeen in November. It will take the form of a conference and the objective of this meeting is to seek greater integration both between the fields of dispersal ecology and movement ecology and also between researchers working in terrestrial and marine systems (see for details).


Posted by: oikosasa | September 10, 2013

The higher up, the smaller the seeds

How the mass of plant seeds change with altitude is studied in the new Oikos Early View paper “Disentangling ecological, allometric and evolutionary determinants of the relationship between seed mass and elevation: insights from multiple analyses of 1355 angiosperm species on the eastern Tibetan Plateau” by W. Qi et al. Below you find some photos from the field work and a short story by the authors:

In each summer and autumn during 2001-2008, Wei Qi, Guozhen Du and their colleagues collected seeds (Fig. 1, Wei Qi is collecting seeds; Fig. 2, Guozhen Du is collecting seeds), collected plant specimens (Fig. 3) and recorded elevation and habitat information (Fig. 4) on the northeastern verge of the Tibetan Plateau in China (101°05′-104°40′ E, 32°60′-35°30′ N). Here, you can see towering mountains (Fig. 5), grotesque rock formations (Fig. 6), crystal clear waters (Fig. 7), dense forests (Fig. 8), beautiful meadows (Fig. 9) and magnificent temples (Fig. 10). Seed collection is a hard work. Sometime, we had to climb cliffs (Fig. 11) or to ride horses (Fig. 12). Moreover, in order to save time to collect seeds, we often ate cakes in the car (Fig. 13) or drank beer under the snowy mountain (Fig. 14). In spite of this, we are always happy (Fig. 15), because we belong to a cohesive group (Fig. 16).

Posted by: oikosasa | September 6, 2013

Editor’s choice September

DriesFor the September issues, we chose the forum paper of Caplat et al. as editor’s choice. The paper arose from a special symposium at the 2011 ESA meeting in Austin, and synthesizes how insights from invasion ecology can help us understanding species responses to climate change. The paper does not aim to provide a systematic review or meta-analysis of the literature, but instead focusses on the useful concepts and insights generated from invasion processes relevant to climate change ecology of plants. The authors particularly focus on processes related to movement and especially the settlement phase and the expected impacts of altered species distributions on recipient ecosystems. While Oikos does not have a special focus on applied ecological research, we do stimulate the translation of fundamental insights into a global change or societal context. This appears especially important in the context of species management, both with respect to conservation and control under future scenarios of climate change.


Polley and colleagues report that plant functional traits improve diversity-based predictions of temporal stability of grassland productivity. The study uses measures of aboveground net primary productivity from an 11 years lasting experimental study in Texas.  The authors varied levels of species richness and abundances of perennial grassland species and assessed how species abundance patterns and functional traits linked to the acquisition and processing of essential resources could be used to improve richness-based predictions of community stability. The system showed large fluctuation in annual precipitation inducing shifts in the plant community responses. Results indicate that the temporal stability of grassland primary production may depend as much on species abundances and functional traits linked to plant responses to precipitation variability as on species richness alone.

In this video, Stuart Auld tells you about his and his colleagues’ study on parasite’s seasonal variations, now published Early View in Oikos

and here’s the paper:

Rapid change in parasite infection traits over the course of an epidemic in a wild host–parasite population

Want to read more about Stuart’s research? Here’s his webpage:

and check him up at twitter:


Posted by: oikosasa | August 29, 2013

Editor’s Choice August

DriesLook up for the must-reads on the global biogeography of autotroph chemistry (Borer and colleagues) and litter decomposability of temperate rainforest trees (Jackson and colleagues). These are two different synthetizing contributions by reviewing the current state of the art and using an integrated, multispecies research approach.

Clearly, such contributions enhance our understanding of ecosystem functioning.

Posted by: oikosasa | August 20, 2013

Parasite changes during an epidemic

In the Early View paper “Rapid change in parasite infection traits over the course of an epidemic in a wild host–parasite population”, Stuart Auld and colleagues examines how parasite traits vary during an epidemic.

In this film, Stuart tells you more about the study:

and here’s more about Stuart’s research:


Posted by: chrislortie | August 15, 2013

Intecol 2013 presentations

Intecol meeting almost upon us! Remember, the Nordic Society is doing what I hope will be a very exciting session on biodiversity. This was a joint effort by Ecography & Oikos. I just completed preparing my talk.  Here it is as a little teaser!  I may also do a short video of it to practice.  Any other speakers game, post your talks too!


Posted by: oikosasa | August 14, 2013

Lessons from Late Jurassic

What can we learn from the Jurassic when it comes to modern Climate changes? read more in the Early View paper in Oikos Learning from the past: functional ecology of marine benthos during 8 million years of aperiodic hypoxia, lessons from the Late Jurassic by Bryony Caswell and Chris Frid.

Below is Bryony’s background story and summary:

“A few years ago whilst on a field trip Chris and I began discussing the ideas that form the basis for this paper.  To him Jurassic marine systems initially appeared to be very different from those we see today being dominated by exotic large marine reptiles, ammonites, belemnites and fish.  The seafloor however was more familiar in its composition of clams, snails, echinoids and so on.  Modern marine systems depend upon key functions delivered by sea-floor communities such as these.  The ecological functions support and regulate multiple processes in the marine ecosystem such as the regeneration of nutrients, absorption and treatment of wastes, and the provision of food. Our discussions led us to ask how will the functioning of marine systems respond to the rapidly expanding footprint of human pressures, such as climatic change and nutrient runoff, in the longer term? The effects that these pressures exert on the seafloor, and the wider marine system, are not unique to modern marine systems. The Mesozoic oceans suffered from similar, albeit natural, pressures the effects of which manifest as remarkably similar patterns of change.  This observation inspired us to explore the potential changes in the delivery of key ecological processes within the Late Jurassic oceans (~150 million years ago) as an analogue for the changes that we see today.

Our study is the first to quantify changes in ecological functioning of the ancient seafloor. The data we use comes from the Late Jurassic and covers ~8 million years of fluctuating regional ocean de-oxygenation, and with it we investigate changes in the biological attributes that supported the palaeoecological functioning in the Wessex Basin, Dorset, UK. The fossilised remains of the Late Jurassic seafloor contain gastropods, brachiopods, scaphopods, bryozoans, echinoids, serpulids, hydroids and crustaceans, but it was dominated by bivalve molluscs.

In the oceans today we are witnessing the rapid expansion of areas of low dissolved oxygen that is caused by a combination of warming and elevated nutrient/organic enrichment of the oceans. The Jurassic was a period of ‘greenhouse’ conditions and de-oxygenation was common in its shallow continental seas within restricted basins such as the Wessex Basin. The results of our analyses show that the species composition of the Late Jurassic seafloor communities changed in the face of the environmental stress caused by the decreased oxygen levels, but that ecological functioning was initially maintained – lowered oxygen levels did not trigger a switch to a seafloor ecosystem that worked in a fundamentally different way. However, as oxygen levels continued to decrease the system underwent a marked change in the way it functioned. We have been able to identify this threshold relative to geochemical proxies for environmental change.

The results of our study suggest that we may be able to identify the thresholds that will trigger this change in modern systems.  The modern seas and oceans support multiple ecosystem services and the collapse of ecological functioning has serious implications for coastal economies. Collapse of functioning is therefore a state that environmental managers should seek to avoid. The ecological changes we observe in the Jurassic are consistent with the patterns emerging from studies of modern systems. Functional collapse occurs rapidly once critical thresholds are exceeded and recovery from this often takes decades and follows a unique and unpredictable return path.


The cliffs near Kimmeridge showing clear metre scale alternation between organic-poor and organic-rich layers.  These variations reflect changes in oxygen levels at the seafloor during the Late Jurassic. 


Exploring the Jurassic seafloor as it is exposed, in the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, today on the foreshore.


A fossil rich bedding plane representing one of the hypoxic palaeocommunities (E2c).  It contains several of the dominant bivalve species (Protocardia morinica, Palaeonucula menkii, and Isocyprina spp.) and the limpet Pseudorhytidopilus latissima.”

Posted by: oikosasa | August 13, 2013

Meet our EiC in London next week!




Posted by: oikosasa | August 2, 2013

Moving plants and invasions

Climate change and plant movements and invasions was discussed during the ESA-meeting 2011. The result – a Forum paper is now published online in Oikos: “Movement, impacts and management of plant distributions in response to climate change: insights from invasions” by P. Caplat et al. Below you find Yvonne Buckley’s background story to the paper:

Plants are moving as their habitat changes due to climate change. If species are to persist they are required to adapt or move somewhere else. Species dynamics are extremely hard to predict, making global change research a challenging enterprise. Invasion ecology however has many case-studies, concepts and challenges in documenting, predicting and managing how species move, and how their movement affects ecosystems.

Invasive plants are extremely good at moving and present very real challenges for predicting where they will move to, how fast and how ecosystems will respond to immigrants. We invited 10 colleagues from around the world with diverse interests in the ecological, evolutionary and social dimensions of invasion to discuss how invasion ecology can contribute to predictions of plant movement in response to climate change at a special session of the 2011 Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin. Sparked by presentations and discussion at that session we wrote a discussion piece for the Oikos Forum.

Climate change and biological invasions exhibit similar dynamics and processes. In the following figure, we show A: a New-Zealand native tree (Nothofagus menziesii), recruiting above the climatic tree line in the Mataketake Range, New-Zealand (courtesy of M. Harsch); B: an invasive pine (Pinus nigra) expanding on a mountainous grassland near Lake Coleridge, New-Zealand.


In the paper, we outline the similarities between invasion dynamics and climate induced range-shifts. The figure below shows how concepts from invasion biology can contribute to questions relevant to climate change research.


Many of these concepts concern the properties plants should have to be able to track their environment or adapt to new conditions. The colonisation of new environments emphasizes the role of dispersal, which has been intensely studied in invasion biology. The following picture illustrates this. A: Invasive thistle Carduus nutans responded to experimental warming by growing taller, therefore increasing its dispersal ability; B: having light, winged seeds allows pine tree Pinus nigra to spread far and fast; C: the dispersal traits of invasive Crepis sancta evolved rapidly when the plants colonized a fragmented urban environment (courtesy of G. Przetak); D: high seed production , amongst other traits, allow Acacia pycnantha to invade grasslands in the Western Cape, South Africa.


Invasion processes are not entirely analogous with plant movements in response to climate change but they do present some useful examples and a large volume of data which could be synthesised to shed light on ecological, evolutionary and social processes that are involved when plants move.

Posted by: oikosasa | July 29, 2013

Swans go with the flow

Many animal species show seasonal switches in their habitat use. For example, animals may move between aquatic and terrestrial habitats, flowing and still waters, coastal areas and open seas, or forest floors and canopies. How do animals decide which habitat to use? One way to understand animal habitat selection is to focus on the energetic gains and costs associated with foraging in each habitat. This has been the basis of much ‘optimal foraging’ research over the past few decades. Foraging models, which calculate the net energy intake per unit time (‘profitability’) available to the animal while foraging in different habitats, can yield a process-based understanding of why animals switch habitats.

In our paper Go with the flow: water velocity regulates herbivore foraging decisions in river catchments , now published Eary View, we used a combination of observational, experimental and modelling work to understand why flocks of non-breeding mute swans (Cygnus olor) show a seasonal switch in habitat use in shallow river catchments. From our previous work, we knew that swans switch from feeding on grasses in pasture grass fields, to feeding on aquatic plants in the river itself, between April and May each year. Due to their high food requirement (up to 4 kg of fresh vegetation per day), lack of predators and high tolerance to disturbance, non-breeding swans are ideal for studies of the influence of foraging profitability on habitat selection. Hence we suspected that the habitat shift would be linked to seasonal changes in one or more of three parameters: food quantity, food quality, and metabolic foraging cost.


A flock of mute swans feeding on submerged plants in a shallow rive

A flock of mute swans feeding on submerged plants in a shallow rive


We combined field and literature data with an optimal foraging model to investigate the observed seasonal habitat shift by mute swans. Our study system for this investigation was the River Frome in southern England, which has a population of approximately 300 swans. We measured the quantity and quality of the two food resources available to swans, aquatic plants and pasture grass. We took quantitative plant samples each month from 18 paired river and field sites within the catchment to measure how the biomass of each food resource changed over the study period. The energy content of plant and swan faeces samples from four of these sites were determined using bomb calorimetry, which showed that the food quality was relatively constant over the study period. We estimated the intake rates for aquatic plants by conducting feeding experiments on captive swans, and for pasture grass by allometric scaling of published data. We used published literature and calculated water velocities to estimate foraging costs. Whilst foraging costs of pasture grass feeding were stable over time, river feeding became more efficient as water velocities declined between spring and summer; slower water meant less energy had to be expended swimming.


The lead author with a tray of swan faeces for energy analysis, illustrating the less glamorous side of working with large, charismatic vertebrates

The lead author with a tray of swan faeces for energy analysis, illustrating the less glamorous side of working with large, charismatic vertebrates


The lead author delivers part of the ad libitum supply of aquatic plants to a captive swan at the start of the functional response experiments

The lead author delivers part of the ad libitum supply of aquatic plants to a captive swan at the start of the functional response experiments


Finally, we used an optimal foraging model to predict the average net rate of energy gain in each habitat, for each month between March and September. The model could have either fixed values (i.e. average values for the study period) or variable values (i.e. monthly values) for the key parameters, to allow us to assess the effects of seasonal changes on profitability and habitat use. We compared the predicted ‘best’ habitat for each month with the observed field data on habitat use. By sequentially testing alternative models with fixed or variable values for food quantity, food quality and foraging cost, we found that we needed to include seasonal variance in foraging costs in the model to accurately predict the observed habitat switch date (i.e. April to May). However, we did not need to include seasonal variance in food quantity and food quality, as accurate predictions could be obtained with fixed values for these two parameters. Therefore, our model indicated that the seasonal decrease in aquatic foraging costs was the key factor influencing the decision to switch from pasture to river feeding habitats. Many previous studies have ignored the role of seasonal changes in foraging costs in driving switches between habitats. Our study offers a mechanistic understanding, based on the gains and costs associated with different food resources, of the observed shifts of a generalist herbivore between alternative habitats.

Understanding the factors which determine habitat selection are necessary to explain the patterns of animal distributions that we observe in nature. Furthermore, we aim to use our understanding of swan habitat selection to inform ecosystem management. Where they feed in shallow rivers, flocks of mute swans may damage the plant community and threaten conservation objectives. Herbivore damage to valuable plant communities is a problem seen around the world, for example deer in temperate woodlands and geese in agricultural crops. Where we understand the factors which determine herbivore habitat use, we may be able to manipulate these factors to shift herbivores away from the threatened habitat. Whether or not we can successfully use our understanding of the rules of habitat selection to devise practical habitat management schemes to prevent overgrazing, it certainly provides an interesting applied focus for future research in this area of ecology.

Kevin A. Wood

Posted by: oikosasa | July 26, 2013

Personality and metabolic rate

Do bold individuals have higher metabolic rates? Find out in the new Early View paper “Personality and basal metabolic rate in a wild bird population” by Sandra Bouwhuis and co-workers. Here’s Sandra’s short summary of the study:

Like humans, individuals of many species are found to vary in their personality type. Some individuals are bold and eager to explore new environments, while other individuals are shy and more cautious. Such personality variation has been suggested to be related to general lifestyle differences between individuals, such that bold individuals opt for a ‘live fast, die young ‘ lifestyle, while shy individuals invest in survival and the future. On the physiological level, such individual differences have been proposed to be supported by different metabolic machinery and, as a result, different metabolic rates. This latter theory was tested in a wild population of great tits, living in Wytham Woods in the UK, over three years. Contrary to the expectation, among 700 individual birds no strong relationship between metabolic rate and personality was found. Instead, the results of the study suggest that individual metabolic strategies may be highly variable and that such metabolic strategies, instead of an average metabolic rate, may be related to personality variation.

Wytham Woods mistnetted great tit personality assay room

Posted by: oikosasa | July 22, 2013

Mom knows best – maternal care in perennial plants

How can we provide the best circumstances for our kids? The new Oikos Early View paper “Adaptive transgenerational plasticity in the perennial Plantago lanceolata” , by Vit Latzel and co-workers, deals with this issue – in plants. Read Vit’s story here:

Imagine that you have to live your whole long life in one spot and that your kids, for whom you cannot even choose the father, will then live very close to you without the possibility of them finding a better environment. How can you best provide for them and make their lives at least slightly easier? This is exactly the challenge that many cross-pollinated long-lived plants must face. Luckily for some mothers, it seems that they can prepare offspring for the environment that they will be facing – giving them an advantage over unprepared competitors. They could do this through the mechanism known as adaptive maternal effects or adaptive transgenerational plasticity. However, rigorous demonstrations of this have been surprisingly rare, probably because appropriate experiments are difficult to conduct and/or the wrong traits have been measured. We did a straightforward experiment on the common perennial Plantago lanceolata (ribwort plantain), testing whether offspring grown in the same level of nutrient availability as their mothers were more successful than offspring grown in a non-maternal environment. Unlike other studies, we considered total carbon storage in roots as the measure of offspring success, because, in contrast to fitness estimates based on single-year fecundity, storage amounts accurately indicate long-term success of polycarpic perennials across several seasons. We found that offspring took an advantage of maternal environmental nutrient levels where they accumulated significantly more carbohydrates than those grown in non-maternal environments. This adaptive transgenerational plasticity was consistent across maternal genotypes and was not affected by climatic fluctuations during offspring development. Our work suggests that adaptive transgenerational plasticity is common in Plantago lanceolata. We also believe that if appropriate estimates of plants success are considered, similar transgenerational adaptive plasticity can likely be found in many other perennial species, and that transgenerational modification of storage dynamics in perennial plants can contribute to their ecological variation.

Ribwort plantain in a natural population and in our cultivation. Graph shows the higher level of carbon storage in offspring grown in maternal than in non-maternal nutrient environment.

Ribwort plantain in a natural population and in our cultivation. Graph shows the higher level of carbon storage in offspring grown in maternal than in non-maternal nutrient environment.

Posted by: oikosasa | July 19, 2013

Scared of darkness?

Are you scared of the dark? Predators can change the species present in a community by consuming particular individuals removing them from the ecosystem. However, a new paper published Early View in Oikos “Fear in the dark? Community-level effects of non-lethal predators change with light regime”, Coreen Forbes and Edd Hammill” shows that under dark conditions, fear of predation alone is enough to lose species from communities. Under dark conditions, photosynthesis is impossible meaning the only species that can survive are ones that can collect energy from existing sources. Moving around to collect this energy also increases the chances of encountering a predator, so when scared, some species reduce the rate at which they move around. This reduction in movement means other species can harvest the energy source faster than the “scared” species. Because the scared species is now less competitive, it can be driven to extinction despite the fact it is not being eaten by predators. Our research shows how important predators are for keeping ecological communities in order


Posted by: oikosasa | July 16, 2013

Welcome Isabel Smallegange – new SE

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWelcome to the Oikos Editorial Board, Dr. Isabel Smallegange, University of Oxford, UK. Isabel’s research focuses on unravelling the mechanisms that maintain male polymorphisms, and on understanding and predicting the eco-evolutionary consequences of (human induced) environmental change. In her studies she uses mites as a model system and combines modelling with behavioural and population experiments. More info is found on her website:‎.

Isabel, what’s you main research focus at the moment? 
The focus of my research is to understand how ecology and evolution interact to determine the evolution of traits and the dynamics of populations in response to environmental change. I specifically focus on the evolution of male dimorphism and combine theory with experiments to unravel the links between ecology and evolution.

Can you describe you research career? 
I started out in behavioural ecology as I was (and still am) fascinated by all the different behaviours that animals display. During my PhD at the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research I studied the foraging behaviour of shore crabs. However, by the end of my PhD I wanted to scale up my work to the population level, which was not possible with shore crabs, and therefore I went to the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology to analyse long-term datasets on bird abundances. This first Post Doc was a great learning experience, however, I missed the experimental element to my research and moved to Imperial College London where I set up a laboratory to use mites as a model system to study population dynamics and the evolution of male dimorphism. My lab has now moved to the University of Oxford where I’m continuing my research on eco-evolutionary dynamics.

male morphs mites more mites copy

How come that you became a scientist in ecology? 
I always liked biology and from a young age I was fascinated with animal behaviour. I actually thought I would never be able to get a job in behavioural ecology but, luckily, I did find a PhD position to study animal behaviour. During my PhD I learnt many different skills that set me up for a career in ecology. Although now I’m not studying animal behaviour anymore, I still work with animals on very exciting questions in ecology and evolution.

What do you do when you’re not working? 
At the moment I spend most of my spare time with my 6-month old son who demands a lot of attention!

Selected publication: Smallegange IM, Coulson T. 2013. Towards a general, population-level understanding of eco-evolutionary change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28:143-148.

The introduction of non-native plants usually invokes a wave of pessimism among biologists.  Some of these introduced plants can invade natural ecosystems where they can cause tremendous problems.  And to make matters worse, it is very difficult to predict much about the ecological impact of a particular non-native plant prior to its introduction.  We argue that one important consequence of a plant introduction is fairly predictable:  which native herbivores are able to colonize it.

In the Early View Oikos paper “Predicting novel herbivore-plant interactions”, Ian Pearse, David Harris, Richard Karban, and Andrew Sih argue that we can predict which native herbivores will successfully colonize which introduced plants if we understand some of the mechanisms of native herbivore plant interactions and the general properties of native food webs.

The basis for predicting novel associations between herbivores and plants is to define the “match” between an herbivore and its potential hosts.  The logic behind this ends up being analogous to the way the Netflix movie website guessed (perhaps correctly) that I might like to watch “His Girl Friday” next (it is similar to another movie that I watched recently) or maybe an episode of “Downton Abbey” (a show that seems to be popular with many people right now).  Indeed, the attempts to “match” us with a novel product (log in to Amazon) or person (visit are essentially pervasive to anyone who ventures onto the internet.  This works because internet sites and companies collect a large (creepy?) amount of information about us and the products they sell.

Microsoft PowerPoint - hostmatchdotcom.ppt

In the context of novel herbivore-plant associations, we already know many of the factors that drive these associations (phylogenetic constraint in host breadth, secondary metabolites, phenology, etc).  And we have even begun to compile information about many native plant-herbivore food webs, which is perhaps akin to Netflix’s list of movies that I and other costumers have watched.  So, this paper suggests that (when armed with accurate native food webs and good lists of plant traits and evolutionary histories) we can start to make more accurate predictions about which native herbivores will colonize which non-native plants.

Of course, the natural history of individual organisms is complicated, and some interactions will be hard to predict.  For example, the interaction between an herbivore and its novel host is an evolving relationship (see a recent Oikos review by Matt Forister dealing with this topic).  But for many cases, herbivore interactions may be one of the most predictable elements of plant introductions.

Posted by: oikosasa | July 9, 2013

Editor’s Choice July

The Editor’s choice papers in the July issue of Oikos are “A critical analysis of the ubiquity of linear local–regional richness relationships” by Goncalves-Souza et al. and “Bottom–up and top–down forces structuring consumer communities in an experimental grassland” by Rzanny et al.  Both are available free online! Here’s the EiC’s motivation for the choice:

DriesBesides promoting synthesis, Oikos has a tradition in publishing studies that challenge widely accepted ecological paradigms. The ubiquity of linear relationship between local and regional species richness is such an idea that found its way to many textbooks. The potential impact of regional and local processes on community structure has been traditionally tested by regressing local against regional species richness. This approach was justified by the idea that communities controlled by regional processes are unsaturated, while those affected by local processes are not. However, while such a linear relationship has been theoretically criticized, a critical reevaluation has so far not been done. Thiago Gonçalves-Souza and colleagues reanalysed published studies with a new unbiased method and found no prevalence of linear relationships and more than 40% of misclassifications. Its apparent ubiquity appeared to be due to the use of biased statistical methods (linear regressions to detect linearity). The study demonstrated such local-regional diversity relationships to follow other ‘rules’ than linear ones. The metacommunity perspective provides a framework to study the importance of processes acting and interacting at different spatial scales. A full understanding of these mechanisms will ultimately generate synthesis on the form and strength of the local-regional diversity scaling rules.

While this framework likely advances our understanding of the processes leading to species diversity, we still lack proper insights on the relative strength of different local mechanisms (food web interactions for instance) that structure species communities. Species at intermediate trophic levels (consumers) are expected to be affected by the interplay between bottom-up and top-down effects, but synthesis on the relative importance of these effects is lacking. By analysing data from a long-term grassland diversity experiment, Michael Rzanny and colleagues demonstrate bottom–up forces to account for the major part of the explainable variation within the composition of all functional groups of consumers (plant chewers, suckers , saprophages) but also predators and parasitoids. Legumes appeared to be an especially important driver of consumer community structure. Predator-mediated top–down forces also influenced the majority of consumer functional groups, but were much weaker. In order to partition the different sources of variation, redundancy analysis was applied. Equally interesting, and again emphasising the interactive effects between local and regional processes, was the importance of different spatial components for explaining, especially, predator community structure.

The Nordic Society has put together a special symposium for the upcoming Intecol meeting.  We hope to see you all there and that you will find it an interesting set of talks.  It is a double session on Tuesday August 20th in the morning. The full programme details will be available by the end of July apparently.

Goals of the diversity symposium

The primary objective of this symposium to highlight the breadth of diversity studies, both empirical and theoretical, with an eye to promoting novelty and identifying research gaps for the next 100 years.  Ancillary goals that will be addressed to meet this overarching objective include the following.

(i) To critically examine scale as it relates to understanding ecological and evolutionary processes that shape patterns of diversity.

(ii) To develop a clear set of directions for future studies of diversity that augment species diversity estimates with genetics in spatial landscapes.

(iii) To describe pivotal concepts and relationships that limit our capacity to effectively use and measure diversity and how it has changed and will change in the future and propose solutions.

(iv) To identify the critical species and places that anchor diversity studies and enhance diversity in changing climate.

The line-up of speakers is very extensive, and the second column in each table lists the allotted time.  We designed the first session to cover mover ground quickly and directly and the second session provides a bit more time for their respective topics.

Session 1 chaired by Jens-Christian Svenning

Dr Richard Michalet The contribution of local-scale facilitative interactions to community diversity and composition


Dr Carlos Melian Connecting diversification and biodiversity dynamics across spatial scales


Mr Tadashi Fukami Spatial scale and the historical contingency in community assembly as a source of beta diversity


Dr Brody Sandel Patterns of diversity across scales: Challenges and opportunities


Dr Hanna Tuomisto A critical look at the diversity of diversity: do we know what we are talking about?


Dr Pedro Peres-Neto Spatial autocorrelation, metacommunities, and null models: the thrills of diversity


Dr Franz Uiblein Widely distributed species versus species complexes in the oceans: where to go towards management of species-rich resources and habitats?


Summary by Chair


Session 2 chaired Christopher Lortie 

Dr W. Daniel Kissling Multi-species interactions across trophic levels at macroscales: retrospective and future directions


Mr Matthias Schleuning Integrating functional and interaction diversity into biodiversity-ecosystem function research


Dr Lonnie Aarssen Evolution and the sizes and numbers of species:  unpacking the diversity of vegetation


Dr Christian Schöb Global patterns of β-diversity along alpine gradients point to locally changing drivers of community assembly – but only in the absence of foundation species


Dr Christopher Lortie Diversity versus interactions: are diverse groups more important than large effects?



Posted by: chrislortie | July 3, 2013

Fun ecological synthesis facts

In my recent explorations into synthesis and the role of Oikos and other major drivers of this movement, here are some facts from Web of Knowledge and online search tools.

(1) Close to 20,000 primary research publications discuss/report effect size estimates in ecology.

(2) Approximately 15 times more meta-analyses published in ecological journals relative to systematic reviews.

(3) PLOSONE publishes majority of systematic reviews for most disciplines possibly including evolutionary biology.

(4) Historical signal of narrative reviews persists in modern synthesis.

(5) Citations per item to meta-analyses now trump narrative reviews.

(6) Oikos ranks 5th in publishing meta-analyses.

(7) The benefit to effort for systematic reviews generally higher than meta-analyses*.

*However, see pre-print on this as it does not necessarily mean we should do them instead of meta-analyses as evidence-based transformations are more likely to occur from meta-analyses.

frequency finalcites final

oikos meta-performancebenefit-effort plot

Posted by: chrislortie | July 3, 2013

Synthesis in ecology

I am experimenting with PeerJ as a new model to get friendly peer-review in advance of submitting to a journal.  Two papers were on my plate – a general synthesis and role of meta-analyses and systematic reviews paper and a more practical paper on how to interpret them. Any feedback appreciated!

Formalized synthesis opportunities for ecology: systematic reviews and meta-analyses. 

Practical interpretation of ecological meta-analyses.

synthesis solar system.003

Posted by: oikosasa | July 3, 2013

How does increased temperature affect herbivory?

Now online: “Increased temperature alters feeding behavior of a generalist herbivore” by Nathan P. Lemoine and co-workers. Read more about how an  increased temperature may affect plant growth and herbivory:

Temperature plays a crucial role in determining ecological processes. For example, temperature can control rates of predation, herbivory, individual growth rates, population growth rates, and mortality rates, to name a few. Unfortunately, we know little regarding the effects of temperature on herbivore choices. That is, we do not fully understand how temperature influences which foods herbivores choose to eat or which foods provide optimal diets. Herbivore physiology is strongly controlled by environmental temperature (if the herbivore is an ectotherm), as rising temperatures promote growth (to a point) and increase the demand for vital nutrients, like sugars, proteins, nitrogen, or phosphorus. If true, then daily, seasonal, decadal, or climatic fluctuations in temperature should alter the plants that herbivores consume.

We tested the hypothesis that temperature alters herbivore performance (consumption and growth rates) and feeding preferences among plant species using the Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica.


We found that the effects of temperature on P. japonica growth and consumption rates varied widely among plants species: increased temperatures stimulated growth on some plants and decreased growth on others. The differences in growth among plant species are attributable to plant nutritional quality. At low temperatures, plant nutritional content did not affect beetle growth. At high temperatures, beetles grew best on plants with high nitrogen and carbon content, perhaps reflecting increased demand for nitrogen-rich materials or carbohydrates.

Additionally, by extracting plant secondary chemicals, we found that temperature reorganizes beetle feeding preferences by altering the effects of plant chemical defenses. Interestingly, the plants that beetles preferred at high temperatures were not the plants on which beetles grew best, indicating that the beetles were making decisions that may not lead to optimal growth rates.


Our results indicate that direct effects of temperature on herbivore physiology can possibly re-organize the intensity of herbivory among plant species and that these changes can be predicted based on plant nutritional quality. These changes will become more important in the future as the climate warms.

Posted by: oikosasa | June 28, 2013

Exploitation-interference link

How interference competition affect population dynamics is explored in the new Early View paper in Oikos “Linked exploitation and interference competition drives the variable behavior of a classic predator–prey system” by John P. DeLong and David Vasseur. Here’s John’s background story and summary:

We had a hunch. While trying to understand how interference competition works, we began to suspect that traits that influenced the rate at which consumers encountered their resources would also influence the rate at which consumers encountered each other. Maybe some measure of exploitation competition would therefore be related to a measure of interference competition.

Figure 1. Traits that influence the rate of consumer-resource encounters might also influence the rate of consumer-consumer encounters, generating a link between exploitation and interference competition.

Figure 1. Traits that influence the rate of consumer-resource encounters might also influence the rate of consumer-consumer encounters, generating a link between exploitation and interference competition.


To find out, we measured foraging rates in the classic Didinium nasutum – Paramecium aurelia predator-prey system. By measuring foraging rates at different levels of both the predator and the prey, we could fit a functional response to the data and retrieve estimates of parameters that reflect the magnitude of these forms of competition. If there was any variation in those parameters, we would expect it to be correlated.


Figure 2. Here a Didinium nasutum is consuming a Paramecium bursaria.

We created 16 different populations and nudged them in different directions – they received varying amounts of nutrients, varying amounts of prey and predators, and were allowed to grow for different amounts of time. Then we pulled individuals from the populations and conducted the foraging experiments, once for each population separately. Our functional response included the power-law form of interference – mutual interference – and the standard ‘a’ parameter that characterizes exploitation. Across the populations, exploitation was strongly correlated with interference.

Figure 3. Interference competition (which gets more intense as it gets more negative) is strongly and positively related to exploitation competition (a).

Figure 3. Interference competition (which gets more intense as it gets more negative) is strongly and positively related to exploitation competition (a).


Turns out we weren’t the first ones to suspect this. In 1954, Park suggested that the two forms of competition might be linked, but since that time research into competition has largely investigated interference separately from exploitation. Keeping them separate is likely to obscure how competition influences ecological and evolutionary dynamics, especially given that interference can have a rather strong impact on foraging rates.

For example, the Didinium – Paramecium is famous for having highly variable dynamics. Usually, dropping a few Didinium into a plate full of Paramecium leads to one cycle of growth followed rapidly by the extinction of both populations. However, slowing everything down can lead to more oscillatory behavior. These variable dynamics are easily explained by the link between exploitation and interference, with low interference and low exploitation leading to oscillatory dynamics, intermediate competition values leading to stabilized dynamics, and higher values of both leading to deterministic extinction.

Figure 4. Predator-prey dynamics, here simulated for Didinium – Paramecium, vary from oscillatory to deterministic extinction due to the correlated nature of the interference and exploitation parameters.

Figure 4. Predator-prey dynamics, here simulated for Didinium – Paramecium, vary from oscillatory to deterministic extinction due to the correlated nature of the interference and exploitation parameters.


We also found a way to modify the mathematical formulation for the ‘a’ parameter that generates the kind of exploitation-interference relationship we observed. This model suggests that the rate of travel of the predator is an important driver of both forms of competition, bringing a measurable trait to bear on this problem.

Posted by: oikosasa | June 25, 2013

Welcome Michael Scherer-Lorenzen – new SE!

Michael Scherer-Lorenzen has just joined the Editorial Board of Oikos. Get to know him by reading the presentation below. And welcome to Oikos, Michael!

Scherer-Lorenzen_webIn my research I aim to mechanistically understand the biotic control of ecological processes and how global change drivers – such as climate change, land use change, nitrogen deposition, or invasive species – are interacting with this control.  Within this field I focus on the functional role of biodiversity for productivity and biogeochemical cycles. I am currently coordinating the EU Framework Programme VII project FunDivEUROPE, which aims to quantify the role of forest biodiversity for ecosystem functioning and the delivery of goods and services in major European forest types.


1. What’s you main research focus at the moment? 

Does it matter to the way how ecosystems function whether there are only few or many species present? And if so, which are the mechanisms behind such biodiversity effects on ecosystem processes? Do such functional effects of biodiversity change with changing land use intensity or climate?
These kind of questions are at the basis of my group´s current field of research. We are focusing on processes such as productivity or nutrient cycling, with litter decomposition and plant nutrient uptake being key functions. One challenge we are currently dealing with is the quantification of resource use complementarity, which is one main mechanism that could explain positive plant diversity effects on productivity. In terms of study systems, we work in grasslands and forest ecosystems mainly, using both experimental and comparative appraoches.


2. Can you describe you research career? Where, what, when? 

Because there was a strong focus on ecology at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, I went to this little city in northern Bavaria in autumn 1988, to study Biology. I finished my studies with a thesis on land use effects on plant communities in Southern Chile.
In 1995, I begun my PhD within the pan-European BIODEPTH project under the supervision of Detlef Schulze. BIODEPTH was the first biodiversity – ecosystem functioning experiment in Europe at that time and was coordinated by John Lawton. The whole consortium was a real dream-team, and I learned a lot.
After finishing the PhD in 1999, I worked as an assistant to Detlef Schulze in the German Advisory Council on Global Change (“WBGU”), followed by a position as Executive Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Network (ibn). These two jobs offered interesting insights into policy advising and the function of important international treaties, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD.
I went back to science in 2001 as a research scientist at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, where I established a large tree diversity experiment (BIOTREE).
From 2003 to 2009 I was working in the research group of Nina Buchmann at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Here, I started to use isotopic tracers to quantify resource use complementarity and to study drought effects on alpine grasslands.
Finally, in April 2009, I got the position as a Professor for Geobotany at the University of Freiburg, which enabled me to set up my own research group on functional biodiversity research.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

3. How come that you became a scientist in ecology? 

It all begun during field trips with my parents (my father collected beetles), where my fascination for nature was born. In school, I participated in nature conservation actions and research competitions. For example, together with friends, I was mapping amphibians or developped a protection programme for social wasps. So, it was very clear for me that I wanted to study biology after school. And so I went to Bayreuth…see above.


4. What do you do when you’re not working? 

We have two wonderful children, Falk and Alva, who take most of my non-working time, of course. We are often going out into the forest just behind our garden, or take the bicycle, or play football.

Selected publication:
Scherer-Lorenzen, M. (2013). The functional role of biodiversity in the context of global change. In: D. Burslem, D. Coomes, & W. Simonson (Eds.), Forests and Global Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In press.

Posted by: oikosasa | June 18, 2013

Fish eye view of forest canopies

 “In discussing the peculiar type of refraction which occurs when light from the sky enters the surface of still water, it seems of interest to ascertain how the external world appears to the fish.” With these words renowned physicist R.W. Wood, Professor of Experimental Physics at Johns Hopkins University and proud owner of one of the firsthome aquariums, started his 1906 article “Fish-Eye Views and Vision Underwater“. The article was set to offer a scientifically based description of how a fish might view the world outside his glass tank.

Fish eye 1Even with all his intellectual curiosity and intuitiveness, Prof. Wood probably could not have imagined that decades later a modern descendant of the water camera he had once designed would be balanced on tripods in forests around the world. Nor could he have envisioned that it would soon become the standard field instrument for characterization of canopy structure and light regimes of forest ecosystems.

But let’s take a step back to understand how the fish got to view the forest.

The phenomenon Prof. Wood exploited in his experiment is governed by Snell’s law. Dating back to the 17th century, Snell’s law also known as Snell’s window is a phenomenon by which an observer looking up from beneath the water sees a perfectly circular image of the entire above-water hemisphere—from horizon to horizon. This is caused by refraction, light bending as it travels from one medium (air) to another (water). As argued by Prof. Wood, the cone of light entering the fish’s eye has an aperture of about 96°, but the rays within it came originally from a cone of 180°. This is the same phenomenon by which a fisheye lens (or hemispherical lens) is able to reach far to the sides of a scene and pull in the visual information of the entire hemisphere onto a plane.

The first practicable methods of hemispherical photographs were developed in 1924 shortly after Dr. R. Hill developed the first fisheye camera for cloud survey records and formation studies. During mid the 50s two ecologists, G.C. Evans and D.E. Coombe from the Botany School of the University of Cambridge, learned that one of these ingenious fisheye cameras had survived the war. Shortly after, they were standing under the dense shade of a small tree of Napoleona vogelii situated in Oil Palm bush near Ibadan, Nigeria. Of course – taking hemispherical photographs.

In 2007 another camera equipped with a fisheye lens was pointing upward to the sky in the canopy of yet another tropical forest, this time in Taita Hills South-East Kenya, where Alemu Gonsamo and colleagues from the University of Helsinki were conducting an extensive measurement campaign for the remnant cloud forest fragments.  Gonsamo and colleagues did not have to face many of the technological shortcomings Evans and Coombe were confronted with just half a century earlier. At that time hemispherical photograph analysis required tedious manual overlaying of sky quadrants and superimposing the track of the sun. With the advent of personal computers and with the replacement of film cameras by digital cameras, researchers are now able to develop digital analysis techniques (link here) and today various commercial and non-commercial software programs have become available for rapid hemispherical photograph processing and analysis. Yet many fundamental issues remain to be resolved.

The resulting hemispherical photographs serve as a permanent record of the canopy geometry, which can be precisely used to characterize canopy structure and light regimes. Canopy structural parameters are critical to adequately represent vegetated ecosystems for purposes ranging from primary productivity, climate change studies, water and carbon exchanges, and radiation extinction. However, as observed by Gonsamo and co-authors, standardization in the definitions of the fractional canopy cover and openness parameters has fallen short, leading to confusion of terms and concepts even in standard text books, making the comparison of historic measures futile.

Fish eye2

In the Oikos Early View paper Measuring fractional forest canopy element cover and openness–definitions and methodologies revisited Alemu Gonsamo and colleagues take an exciting tour, reviewing concepts, polishing up definitions, and presenting new methodologies to obtain large scale fractional canopy element cover and openness measures using photographs with a fisheye view perspective. Finally, in their Oikos paper, Gonsamo and colleagues argue that hemispherical photography is less time, labour and resource intensive, as compared to the traditional point based measuring techniques of canopy element cover and openness. This included measurements in topographically complex terrains.

Posted by: oikosasa | June 14, 2013

Editor’s Choice June


Oikos’ Editor-in-Chief, Prof. Dries Bonte, explains his choice of EC-papers for the June issue:

Editor’s choice papers from the June issue create synthesis on invasions.

Zenni & Nuñez  focus in a forum paper “The elephant in the room: the role of failed invasions in understanding invasion biology” on the importance of failed invasions to understand mechanisms behind invasions. They provide a review on studies documenting success and especially failures of invasions and found –not surprisingly I have to say- that only few studies have documented conclusively why populations fail to invade. The authors followed a paired approach contrasting environmental factors in invasive versus non-invasive populations of different species. They were, despite the lack of a well-developed research framework, able to demonstrate that different mechanisms may be causing failures vs. successes: propagule pressure, abiotic resistance, biotic resistance, genetic constraints and mutualist release. Rafael and Martin discuss the evidence available for the factors associated with these failures to invade. They additionally identify research field that are likely to produce misleading insights when neglecting these mechanisms of failure. Such biased reporting may thus not only mislead researchers, but certainly managers on the mechanisms leading to invasions.

There is consensus that when introduced organisms invade, they may cause considerable changes in community and ecosystem dynamics. While invasions are generally associated with negative impacts, Paul Gribben and colleagues demonstrate in their paper “Positive versus negative effects of an invasive ecosystem engineer on different components of a marine ecosystem” that an invasive engineer species may also contribute positively to marine community structure. They more specifically studied the impact of the invasive green alga Caulerpa taxifolia in southeastern Australia on the composition and abundance of the epifaunal and infauna community. More detailed species responses where experimentally approached. While contrasting impacts on different community components were obvious, they also showed that community change following the invasive species’ removal appeared strongly density dependent with the degree of recovery five months post removal related to the initial biomass. Areas with different biomasses of habitat-forming (invasive) species may subsequently have different temporal recovery trajectories. So, as highlighted by Zenni & Nuñez, the impact of the invasive species is strongly context-dependent and its impact differs according to the community components under study.

Posted by: oikosasa | June 12, 2013

Welcome Anna-Liisa Laine – new SE

We’re very happy to welcome Anna-Liisa Laine, University of Helsinki, Finland, to our Editorial Board!

Anna-LiisaRead more about her below and visit her website

What’s you main research focus at the moment?
Much of my research is focused on understanding why pathogens occur where they do. To get at this seemingly simple question I combine
experimental and molecular studies of host-pathogen co-evolution with data on epidemiology. I’m especially interested in how variation is generated in host resistance and pathogen infectivity, and how this variation affects epidemiological dynamics. While I mainly study within season disease transmission, I’m also extremely interested in how parasites transmit from one season to the next.
At heart I’m an ecologist and we do our field work in the Åland archipelago where 4000 meadows are annually surveyed for fungal pathogens of plants.

Can you describe you research career?
After completing my Masters at the University of Oulu in 2001, I started a PhD in the Metapopulation Research group at the University of
Helsinki, under the supervision of Ilkka Hanski. In my PhD I focused on understanding how host-parasite coevolution proceeds in a situation where the hostpopulations are highly fragmented. I defended my theses in 2005 and in 2006-07 in did a post doctoral project in the lab of John Thompson at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There we focused on understanding how plant-pollinator mutualism responds to changes in the local Community composition. I had another post doctoral stint in 2009-10 in with Pete Thrall and Jeremy Burdon at CSIRO, Canberra, Australia. There I had the opportunity to work with the classic wild flax-rust pathogen interaction,
addressing questions of host-parasite coevolution. Now I’m back at the University of Helsinki where I started my own lab in in 2010, and I
work as an Academy research fellow.

How come that you became a scientist in ecology?
When I was a high school student, I loved cell biology, and coming from a family of scientist going into seemed like an obvious choice.  However, when I started my studies at the university, I became fascinated with ecology. This was mainly due to two professors in those early years, Lauri Oksanen and Juha Tuomi. I had the chance to work as a research assistant in Lauri’s herbivory project and my interest for species interactions has continued ever since.

What do you do when you’re not working?
With two small kids, I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing with legos and finger painting recently… When I have a chance, I go

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Posted by: oikosasa | June 4, 2013

How ants and plants interact over space in the Amazon?

I protect you and you feed me, says the ant to the plant…read more about ecological networks in the new Early View paper “Spatial structure of ant–plant mutualistic networks” by Wesley Dattilo and coworkers.

In tropical environments, ant diversity is extremely high, reaching approximately 500 species at local scales. Because of both their abundance and diversity, it is extremely common to see ants foraging on plants. Within a spatial environment with a remarkable diversity (eg. Amazon rainforest) different plant and ant species can interact with each other and generate complex ecological networks of interactions. In this study, we studied how ants and plants with extrafloral nectaries interact over space, and we show that although the ant and plant composition of networks changed over space, the highly connected plants and ant species, and the structure of networks remained unaltered on a geographic distance of up to 5,099 m in the southern Brazilian Amazon. These finding indicate that different populations of plants and ants can interact in the same way independently of variation in local and landscape environmental factors. Therefore, our study contributes to understanding of the maintenance of biodiversity and coevolutionary processes in ecological networks.

Ants collecting extrafloral nectar on a plant in the fieldwork.

Ants collecting extrafloral nectar on a plant in the fieldwork.

Wesley Dáttilo collecting ant-plant interactions in the southern Brazilian Amazon

Wesley Dáttilo collecting ant-plant interactions in the southern Brazilian Amazon

Posted by: oikosasa | May 31, 2013

Welcome Sa Xiao, new Oikos Editor!

We also welcome Dr. Sa Xiao, Associate Professor at School of Life Sciences, Lanzhou University China. Learn more about him below and on his website

Sa Xiao1

What’s you main research focus at the moment?

My research interests mainly focus on the theoretical ecology and plant ecology. I am particularly interested in the areas of competition and facilitation, species coexistence and diversity, community structure and function. I use computer simulation model as the main research tool, especially the individual-based model programmed with multi-agent modeling language Netlogo. My current researches investigate the relative contributions of neutral theory’s process and niche theory’s process in explaining the multiple empirical patterns at the community-level, such as diversity-productivity relationship.

Can you describe you research career?

I took my PhD at School of Life Science here at Lanzhou University in 2006, where I have been Assistant and Associate Professor since then. In 2009-2011, I did a post-doc in Richard Malet’s lab nin Bordeaux, France. And I have been a Visiting Professor  in Ragan Callaway’s at University of Montana lab during 2010.

 How come that you became a scientist in ecology?

When I was in high school, I had a naïve belief that “Darwin’s theory solved the problems of living nature, and Marx’s theory solved the problems of human society, whereas how to solve the problems between human and nature? This should be the responsibility of ecologist”. So I decided to choose ecology as my life-time career.

 What do you do when you’re not working?

I like cooking very much and I’m particularly well versed in cooking Chinese food. I have strong interest in traditional Chinese philosophy such as Confucianism, Taoism, Yi- ology and Zen. I also like pop music, table tennis and swimming.

And a selected paper:

Xiao, S., Callaway, R.M., Newcombe, G. and Aschehoug E.T. (2012) Models of experimental competitive intensities predict home and away differences in invasive impact and the effects of an endophytic mutualist. The American Naturalist 180, 707-718.

Posted by: oikosasa | May 28, 2013

Welcome Mei Sun, new Oikos Editor!

We’re very happy to welcome Dr. Mei Sun, School of Biological Sciences, University of Hongkong to our editorial team!
Get to know Mei Sun here:
What is your research interest?
My main research focus at the moment is on plant speciation mechanisms and biological or other features that facilitate the rate of evolutionary diversification of angiosperms, especially in the family Orchidaceae as well as the Rhizophoraceae.
Can you describe your research career?
I became interested in plant ecology when I was an undergraduate working on a final-year thesis project in the field. During my postgraduate studies at the University of British Columbia, I become more interested in plant evolutionary biology. My Ph.D. research was on evolutionary genetics of Hawaii endemic species of Bidens (Asteraceae), a morphologically and ecologically diverse group arising from a single long-distance dispersal event followed by adaptive radiation into a variety of habitats on the Hawaiian Islands.
What made you become a scientist in ecology?
I am a molecular ecologist in the broad sense. Using various molecular marker systems, We aim to address various evolutionary questions, such as the investigations of genetic structure and outcrossing rates of hermaphrodites in natural populations of Bidens to determine whether inbreeding depression is one of the major factors in the evolution and maintenance of gynodioecy (e.g., Sun & Ganders 1986 Evolution); genetic diversity and evolutionary origin of Spiranthes orchids in Hong Kong (e.g., Sun 1996,1997 American Journal of Botany; Sun 1996 Conservation Biology); genetic resources and crop evolution (e.g., Amaranthus, sweetpotato, and rice); natural hybridization and phylogeography of Rhizophoraceae. More recently, I am also interested in comparative genetic analysis to understand the evolution of invasiveness in plants that are exchanged between SE Asia and Americas.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Reading about any subject that catches my attention at the moment; listening to soundscape music; watching TV; and doing Yoga …
For a recent representative publication:  please see
Mei Sun, Eugenia Y. Y. Lo   2011
Research Article | published 11 May 2011 | PLOS ONE 10.1371/journal.pone.0019671
Posted by: oikosasa | May 24, 2013

Can native species be invasive?

What should be included in the term “Invasive species”? In the new Early View Forum paper “Another call for the end of invasion biology”, Loic Valery discusses the issue. Here is a short summary of the paper:

The bulk of the literature devoted to biological invasions ignores native species and restricts the field of study to only introduced species. This split used by many researchers to justify the emergence of a distinct discipline is increasingly openly challenged.

Based on the etymology of the word “phenomenon” (i.e. what is seen, what is perceived by the senses), we show that a biological invasion manifests itself, always and only, by the rapid appearance of a state of dominance of a species. Therefore, there is no reason to take into consideration other factors (in particular, the biogeographical origin of the invader) that prove to be both inappropriate and inoperative from a theoretical and practical viewpoint, respectively.

Thereby removing any justification for the autonomy of invasion biology, we advocate a more integrated study of all species on the move.

Sus scrofa_A. MauxionElymus athericus_A. Mauxion

Invasive species can also be native. Here are two examples of native invaders in Europe:  the sea couch grass Elymus athericus Link spreads in salt marshes, from high marsh towards middle and low parts where it forms large dense monospecific stands (here, in the Mont-Saint-Michel bay); and  the wild boar Sus scrofa L., whose populations have exploded demographically in forests and agricultural systems, now extends in big cities such as Berlin, Milan or Barcelona for foraging. (Photographs: courtesy of André Mauxion).

Posted by: oikosasa | May 21, 2013

Even the small ones are important!

Size is not all! Even small herbivores have effect on plant community, as shown in Salvador Rebollo and co-workers new Early View paper shows: “Disproportionate effects of non-colonial small herbivores on structure and diversity of grassland dominated by large herbivores”.

Here is a summary of the study by Rebollo:

Daniel G. Milchunas and Salvador Rebollo, two out of five authors of the article, along-side a large-plus-small herbivore exclosure in the shortgrass steppe.  We tested our hypotheses over a 14-year period in pastures grazed at moderate intensities by cattle and in two types of exclosures: for large (barbed-wire) and for large-plus-small herbivores (small-mesh hardware cloth).

Grasslands are grazed by a complex assemblage of herbivores that differ in body size, abundance, diet, and foraging strategies.  Grazing studies have most often examined effects of large herbivores, probably due to their greater amounts of plant consumption and economic importance.  Studies of small herbivores have focused on social, central-place foragers that reach high local densities and build conspicuous burrow systems, such as prairie dogs or European rabbits.  The role of more evenly dispersed small herbivores in structuring vegetation, especially in perennial grasslands, has been less studied.  What is the importance of these cryptic small herbivores?

Our research was conducted in the semiarid shortgrass steppe of the North American Great Plains, a grassland with a long evolutionary history of grazing by large generalist herbivores and one of the most tolerant ecosystems to grazing by these herbivores.  This ecosystem is considered marginal habitat for small herbivores (except for the social and colonial prairie dogs) due to the lack of overhead cover, the low seed-to-vegetation production ratios, and small seeds of the dominant plant species.  Peak biomass and consumption of rodents and rabbits was estimated to be a fraction (<8%) of that of large herbivores.  We hypothesized that 1) large generalist herbivores would affect more abundant plant species and proportions of litter (old fallen vegetation), bare ground, and vegetation cover through non-selective herbivory, and 2) small herbivores would affect cover and richness of less abundant species, through selective but limited consumption.

Photo 2

Vegetation in one of the large-plus-small herbivore exclosures. Exclusion of herbivores of both body sizes had complementary and additive effects that were linked to increased abundance of tall and decreased abundance of short plant species. Uncommon species as a group were not affected by the additional exclusion of small herbivores, but the tall annual Tragopodium dubious (compositae plant located in the front part of the photo), was an example of one uncommon species that did increase with small herbivore exclusion.

David Augustine conducts a prescribed burn in shortgrass steppe at the Central Plains Experimental Range.

David Augustine conducts a prescribed burn in shortgrass steppe at the Central Plains Experimental Range.

The study site was at the Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER) in northeastern Colorado, USA, one of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) grassland sites (Photos 1 and 2), as well as a Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research (LTAR) network site.  We found that the exclusion of large herbivores affected litter and bare ground, and basal cover of abundant, common, and uncommon species.  Contrary to our hypothesis, additional exclusion of small herbivores did not affect uncommon components of the plant community, but had indirect effects on abundant species, decreased the cover of the dominant grass Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama) and total vegetation, and increased litter and species diversity.

Paul Stapp handles a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, one of the most common small mammal species in shortgrass steppe at the Central Plains Experimental Range.

Paul Stapp handles a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, one of the most common small mammal species in shortgrass steppe at the Central Plains Experimental Range.

Our findings show that small mammalian herbivores had disproportionately large effects on plant communities relative to their small consumption of biomass.  Grazing by the combination of large and small herbivores favored recovery of short grasses after extreme droughts, providing resilience to the shortgrass steppe and contributing to the long-term maintenance of vegetation basal cover.  Our study expands prior work about small herbivores and demonstrates that even in small-seeded perennial grasslands with a long history of intensive grazing by large herbivores, non-colonial small mammalian herbivores should be recognized as an important driver of grassland structure and diversity.  Therefore, the importance of small herbivores was greater than initially thought and their effects on plant communities, isolated or in interaction with large herbivores, should be part of an integrated theory of how about herbivores influence grassland diversity.

Photo 5

Justin Derner sorts yearling steers for grazing experiments (and provides comedy relief) at the Central Plains Experimental Range.


Posted by: oikosasa | May 17, 2013

Habitat complexity, preys and predators

In the new Early View paper “Trait-mediated indirect interactions in a marine intertidal system as quantified by functional responses”, Mhairi E. Alexander and co-workers, have studied how factors as habitat compelxity affect predators and how the predators effect prey populations. Here’s their own summary:

It is well known that predation is important in community structure and functioning. It is also understood that the impact of a predator can be influenced by a number of biotic and abiotic factors. For example, the presence of higher-order predators can influence behaviours of intermediate species that can affect their consumption of prey through trait-mediated effects. Habitat complexity can also be an important mediating influence that in turn can influence the numbers of prey that are consumed. What is less well understood however is how these factors interact and contribute to prey population stability. In this study we address this by detecting and quantifying such trait-mediated indirect interactions (TMIIs) using functional responses, which consider a predator’s consumption over a range of prey densities, to investigate the implications for prey population regulation and stability,


We conducted several experiments to investigate how the influence of a higher-order fish predator combined with habitat complexity affects the behaviour of an intermediate amphipod predator from marine intertidal habitats. We first tested whether amphipods were able to determine higher-order predator presence. We found that amphipods demonstrated anti-predatory behaviour via a reduction in activity with the addition of cue that was seawater mixed with crushed conspecifics as well as seawater from tanks holding fish fed conspecifics and also those fed bloodworm. Interestingly, there was no reaction to fish fed an algal diet or those that had been starved. As we didn’t find any response of the basal prey, a commonly occurring isopod, to these cues, we went on to investigate how the presence of the cue in combination with habitat complexity affected the amphipods predation rates and whether the observed reduced activity translated into reduced foraging.


We observed that when there was no habitat or fish cue, amphipods showed what are considered to be potentially destabilising predatory responses towards the isopod prey. With the addition of habitat, however, the response was found to become stabilising as a result of a reduction in consumption of prey at low densities.  When habitat complexity was not included, the presence of fish cue was found to reduce the magnitude of the predator’s consumption of prey at higher densities, as would be expected with reduced activity in the presence of a predator. However when habitat was present in combination with fish cue, although reduced consumption occurred at low densities, at high prey densities it was increased in comparison to predation with habitat complexity and no cue. This seemed to occur as the fish cues drove the amphipods into habitat with more prey and thus actually enhanced predation of the basal prey.

The results from this study demonstrate the utility of functional responses in addressing questions of prey population stability. In addition we have further highlighted how complex predator-prey interactions can be, as well as exploring the relevance of environmental and biological cues that can result in unexpected and complex outcomes.

Posted by: oikosasa | May 14, 2013

Editor’s choice May

DriesOikos will publish synthetic meta-analyses open access and with high priority, and has assigned Christopher Lortie as deputee editor responsible for handling and inviting such contributions.  Jodi Price and Meelis Partel used meta-analyses to examine experimental evidence that functional similarity between invaders and resident communities reduces invasion. They found evidence for forb species but not for grasses, but equally important, their study highlights the fact that such patterns are more prominent in artificially assembled communities than in more natural communities with species or functional groups removed. Only by synthesing data from multiple studies the authors can unambiguously demonstrate that ecological mechanisms that are both theoretically and empirically underpinned may be only limited expressed under natural settings.

As a second editor’s choice we selected a theoretical study by Sonia Kefi and co-authors exploring to which degree critical slowing down is a key phenomenon to measure the distance to a tipping point in ecosystems. Tipping points are abrupt, unexpected and irreversible shifts within ecosystem. Specific ecosystem characteristics like spatiotemporal changes in biomass or population sizes may provide hints or early warning signals about an approaching shift. There is indeed a quickly expanding literature suggesting the presence of such early warning signals. By using analytical modelling, the authors demonstrate that -contrary to the ruling perspective- early warning signals based on critical slowing down are representative for a broader class of situations where systems experience increasingly sensitivity to perturbation. They are hence not solely specific to catastrophic shifts. This study consequently warns for a careful interpretation of critical slowing down as an early warning signal. It thereby stimulates further research aiming at developing and interpreting alike indicators to catastrophic ecosystem shifts whose occurrence may be extremely important for the livelihood of people living in such threatened ecosystems.

Editor’s Choice papers are freely accessible online for three months.

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