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URPP Global Change and Biodiversity

Toward a better integration of evolution and community ecology

Team Members

Florian Altermatt

Lynn Govaert

Owen Petchey


Evolutionary biology, community and ecosystem ecology have been largely developed independently from one another, which is limiting the application of these concepts in biodiversity sciences. Community ecologists have focused on species identity, while it is well-known that species can evolve in their trait values. Evolutionary biologists, on the other hand, have mainly focused on single species, while single speciess are often part of a larger set of species comprising a community. However, recent studies have provided evidence that evolutionary and ecological processes can interact on contemporary time scales. Hence, trait evolution of a single species selected upon by ecological processes can have extended consequences for community and ecosystem processes, especially in the contet of global change. In this project we want to better intergrate theory, concepts and approaches of evolutionary biology with those from community and ecosystem ecology by performing conceptual reviews, and experimental tests using protist species as model organisms. Ultimately, we want to use our integrated results to upscale and better predict community and diversity patterns within and among-sites at the metacommunity and -ecosystem level.


Why are species where they are is a major question in community ecology and biodiversity science, and has led to substantial amount of studies exploring the factors driving community composition and structure. Classical studies on diversity patterns focus on the species identity, and typically ignore trait variation among and within species. However, recent studies have emphasized the importance of intraspecific trait variation to explain community patterns. Sources of intraspecific trait variation can be genetic and non-genetic, and recent studies have emphasized the importance of evolutionary processes to explain community patterns. In order to gain a mechanistic understanding on metacommunity dynamics, we need to combine theory, concepts and approaches from evolutionary biology, community and ecosystem ecology.  In this project, we aim for a better understanding on the complex interplay of evolutionary, ecological and spatial processes shaping community and biodiversity patterns. To that extent we combine experimental and modelling approaches using techniques from evolutionary biology and ecology. More specifically, we will:  i) experimentally evaluate trait evolution along an increasing salinity concentration in single species cultures and community cultures using protist species. This selection experiment will be followed by a common garden experiment, of which the collected data will allow the use of the reaction norm approach. This experiment will allow to track trait evolution, and determine how the community context may influence the evolutionary trajectory of single species.    ii) model the evolution of dispersal in a metacommunity context. iii) perform a review on the recent integration of evolutionary biology and community and ecosystem ecology, and provide guidance on experimental approaches to integrate these fields better.