Disentangling Ecosystem Functions: Our Imagination is the Limit


Studies of Action

Studies of ecosystem function are studies of action: of insects pollinating flowers, of predators killing pests – and in our case (well, more often than not) of beetles disposing of dung. To isolate the effects of the critters that we think will matter, we need to selectively include or exclude them. If we think a particular species or species group is responsible for a certain function, then we test this by keeping it in or out of enclosures. If we want to look at effects of species diversity, then we create communities of different species richness.

Research on dung beetles is far from boring. © Kari Heliövaara.

Research on dung beetles is far from boring. © Kari Heliövaara.

Depending on the target organism, this is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult. But it almost invariably proves to be fun! We enjoy the challenge of inventing new techniques for unravelling ecosystem functions sustained by insects. Working on dung beetles – as we tend to do – can be messy, but it’s definitely never boring.

In targeting ecosystem functions, the real trick is to make the experiments relevant. What we want to understand are the effects of changes occurring in the real world. All too often studies of ecosystem functions have been focused on artificial species pools in artificial settings. To see how we have solved this, we’ll give you a quick look at our dungy portfolio of approaches to date. Continue reading

Evolution MegaLab

Modern technology offers some really exciting new opportunities for the use of citizen science, and in our newest video Jonathan Silvertown, Open University, gives a demonstration of Evolution MegaLab, a huge collaboration exploring the use of citizen science methods to undertake high-quality surveys of polymorphism in a wild species.

Jonathan demonstrates the site’s display of historical polymorphism data, some features designed to enable researchers to assess the reliability of volunteer-gathered data, and the process by which anyone can add newly gathered data to the project database.

In a paper recently published in Methods, the authors detail  the methodology used in setting up the Evolution MegaLab, analyse its more and less successful components, and provide a clear set of guidelines for any designer of future citizen science projects.



Measuring the importance of species to ecosystems

In this video to accompany their paper Randomization tests for quantifying species importance to ecosystem function, authors Nicholas Gotelli and Fernando Maestre discuss the introduction of simple tests for measuring the effect of species on ecosystem variables, and give us an insight into the logistics required for their paper’s “natural experiements” – involving the collection and preparation of over 25,000 lichen samples!

The methodology presented in this paper provides a simple way of determining and testing species importance, and could form the basis for future theoretical and experimental studies investigating species occurrence and ecosystem function.


Studying deepwater animals with TrapCam

Two uploads in two days make this a bumper week for Methods in Ecology and Evolution‘s author videos!

In Studying deepwater animals with TrapCam lead author Brett Favaro walks us through the construction of TrapCam, an inexpensive, self-contained camera system designed to deliver high-definition video footage of deepwater animals at depths inaccessible for scuba divers, which does not require ongoing support from a vessel, or need special apparatus to deploy and retrieve.


Brett takes us through the construction of the TrapCam system, followed by footage of the retrival of a unit followingdeployment, and some eerie images obtained by TrapCam in action.

It is hoped that the use of equipment such as this to better understand interactions between deepwater animals, especially those at risk of over-exploitation, could have a significant impact on improving marine conservation. You can read more about the setup, including an evalutaion of its cost effectiveness and performance, in TrapCam: an inexpensive camera system for studying deep-water animals, published online today in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Heating up the forest

In our latest video Shannon Pellini demonstrates experimental equipment designed to simulate the effects of warmer air temperatures on forest ecosystems – and, particuarly, on arthropod communities.

You can read a full account of their experimental methods, and results from two contemporaneous trials at Harvard Forest and Duke Forest, in their recently published paper, Heating up the forest: open-top chamber warming manipulation of arthropod communities at Harvard and Duke Forests.


Estimating seed predation rates

Seed predation plays an important role in global plant demography. In this video, Adam Davis, of the University of Illinois, demonstrates how field experiments and statistical models can can enable the extrapolation of long-term seed predation rates from short-term data.

A full treatment of this can be found in the paper Temporal scaling of episodic point estimates of seed predation to long-term predation rates, recently published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.


Welcome to methods.blog & see you at INTECOL

This is the new blog for the new Methods in Ecology and Evolution journal from the British Ecological Society and published by Wiley-Blackwell. This blog will highlight content in the journal, new research in ecological and evolutionary methods, as well as provide a sounding board for developments in the journal and publishing. Updates will be provided by members of the editorial team.

One of the first places we will be promoting the new journal is at the INTECOL meeting in Brisbane. Look out for us on the Wiley-Blackwell stand, we will be running updates from the meeting including summaries of sessions at which the journal editor is participating and highlights of talks with interesting methodological content.

Rob Freckleton