Minimising the effects the ongoing Anthropocene mass extinction has become one of the main challenges of our era. The data suggest that the current rate of species loss is 100–1,000 greater than the background rates seen in the geological record. “But does it really matter if species are lost?” This question has permeated social and political debates. It’s usually used to demean conservation efforts. But it has also intrigued conservation scientists.
We know that species don’t occur alone in their environment. They’re entangled by their interactions, forming complex networks. In these networks the loss of one species may result in the loss of other species that depend on it. This process is known as co-extinction. Estimates of the magnitude of past and future extinction rates have often failed to account for the interdependence among species and the consequences of primary species loss on other species though. Continue reading →
Ecological networks represent interactions between different biotic units in an ecosystem and are becoming an increasingly popular tool for describing and illustrating a range of different types of ecological interactions. Food webs – which provide a way to track and quantify the flow of energy and resources in ecosystems – are among the most studied type of ecological networks. These networks usually represent species (nodes) which are connected by pairwise interactions (links) and they play a central role in improving our understanding of ecological and evolutionary dynamics.
Historically, food webs described antagonistic relationships (e.g. plant-herbivore or host-parasitoid networks) but the approach has been developed in recent years to include mutualistic networks (e.g. plant-pollinator networks, phorophyte-epiphyte networks). The development of network ecology, including ever more sophisticated methods to analyse ecological communities, has been driven forward by an enthusiastic community of ecologists, theoreticians and modellers working together to enhance our understanding of how communities interact.
In this blog post, we’ll describe the important role played by female scientists in the development of network ecology, focusing on the contributions by two ground-breaking ecologists and also highlighting contributions from a range of other scientists working in this field. Continue reading →
A key property of biodiversity is that it is not evenly distributed around the world. In other words, different sites are usually home to different biological communities. Quantifying the differences among biological communities is a major step towards understanding how and why biodiversity is distributed in the way it is.
The term beta diversity was introduced by R.H. Whittaker in 1960. He defined it as “the extent of change in community composition, or degree of community differentiation, in relation to a complex-gradient of environment, or a pattern of environments”. In his original paper, Whittaker proposed several ways to quantify beta diversity. In its simplest form (which we will call strict sense or multiplicative beta diversity), beta diversity is defined as the ratio between gamma (regional) and alpha (local) diversities (Whittaker, 1960; Jost, 2007). Therefore, it is the effective number of distinct compositional units in the region (Tuomisto, 2010). Essentially, beta diversity quantifies the number of different communities in the region. So it’s clear that beta diversity does not only account for the relationship between local and regional diversity, but also informs about the degree of differentiation among biological communities. This is because alpha and gamma diversities are different if (and only if) the biological communities within the region are different.
It’s easy to demonstrate how beta diversity varies from the minimum to the maximum differentiation of local assemblages in a region. For simplicity, we will quantify biological diversity as species richness (number of species), but it’s important to remember that alpha, beta and gamma diversities can also be defined to account for richness and relative abundances (see Jost, 2007 for a detailed explanation). When local assemblages are all identical (minimum differentiation), alpha diversity equals gamma diversity, and beta diversity equals 1 (figure below).