Demography and Big Data

Post provided by BRITTANY TELLER, KRISTIN HULVEY and ELISE GORNISH

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To understand how species survive in nature, demographers pair field-collected life history data on survival, growth and reproduction with statistical inference. Demographic approaches have significantly contributed to our understanding of population biology, invasive species dynamics, community ecology, evolutionary biology and much more.

As ecologists begin to ask questions about demography at broader spatial and temporal scales and collect data at higher resolutions, demographic analyses and new statistical methods are likely to shed even more light on important ecological mechanisms.

Population Processes

Midsummer Opuntia cactus in eastern Idaho, USA. © B. Teller.

Midsummer Opuntia cactus in eastern Idaho, USA. © B. Teller.

Traditionally, demographers collect life history data on species in the field under one or more environmental conditions. This approach has significantly improved our understanding of basic biological processes. For example, rosette size is a significant predictor of survival for plants like wild teasel (Werner 1975 – links to all articles are at the end of the post), and desert annual plants hedge their bets against poor years by optimizing germination strategies (Gremer & Venable 2014).

Demographers also include temporal and spatial variability in their models to help make realistic predictions of population dynamics. We now know that temporal variability in carrying capacity dramatically improves population growth rates for perennial grasses and provides a better fit to data than models with varying growth rates because of this (Fowler & Pease 2010). Moreover, spatial heterogeneity and environmental stochasticity have similar consequences for plant populations (Crone 2016). Continue reading

Methods Beyond the Population

Post Provided by SEAN MCMAHON and JESSICA METCALF

Demography Beyond the Population” is a unique Special Feature being published across the journals of the British Ecological Society.  The effort evolved from a symposium of the same name hosted in Sheffield, UK last March. Both the meeting and the Special Feature were designed to challenge ecologists from a range of fields whose research focuses on populations.

The participants were charged with sharing how they are pushing the work they do beyond the stage where the population is the focus into research where the population is just the beginning and the focus spans scales, systems and tools. This encompasses a broad suite of biological research, including range modelling, disease impacts on communities, biogeochemistry, evolutionary theory, and conservation biology. The meeting was a great success, and this Special Feature should be equally valuable to the broad readership of the BES journals.

Methods in Ecology and Evolution has a special place in the Special Feature, hosting four papers. These papers not only introduce new efforts in population biology, they provide the methods that other scientists can use to implement them. With the tools provided by these four papers, researchers will be able to advance forest modelling, evolutionary theory, climate change biology and statistical inference of hidden population parameters.  Seriously good stuff! Continue reading