Poll: do you think species-rich communities are those with stronger coexistence mechanisms?

One of the most important conceptual advances in community ecology over the last couple of decades has been the development of modern coexistence theory: a quantitative, rigorous theoretical framework that exhaustively defines, and quantifies the strength of, the classes of mechanisms by which species coexist (e.g., stabilizing vs. equalizing mechanisms). Chesson (2000) is the most accessible summary of this theoretical framework. Adler et al. (2007) is an even more accessible overview of some of the key ideas. Folks like Jon Levine, Peter Adler, Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, Steve Ellner, and their colleagues are now applying modern coexistence theory to real data, showing that it leads to practical real-world insights.

But most ecologists only care about coexistence mechanisms as a means to the end of understanding species diversity. And as various folks have noted (including me here on the blog), a theory of coexistence isn’t necessarily the same thing as a theory of species diversity. The question is, how are those two things related?

I’ve been thinking about that question, have chatted about it with various people, and have seen various people mention it in talks. I’ve been struck by the divergence of opinion as to what the answer is. But obviously, my anecdotal experience probably isn’t representative of the broad views of ecologists. Hence my little poll below: do you think more species-rich communities are those with stronger coexistence mechanisms? Choose the answer that best matches your views.

I may decide to do my ESA talk on this topic if the early poll responses are all over the map or if the modal answer is one I seriously disagree with. So please vote! šŸ™‚

In the comments, I encourage you to explain your vote.

Favorite good (or bad?) examples of “operationalizing” vague ecological concepts?

“Operationalization” is the term for taking a concept that’s vague or abstract and making it more precise and concrete, so that it can be put to practical use. Like many scientific and social scientific fields that aren’t physics or chemistry, ecology has many concepts that are only vaguely defined, or at least were only vaguely defined when they were first proposed. “Niche” is an infamous example. Or think of how one response to my critique of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis was to question whether the ideas I was critiquing were “really” part of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, properly defined. Few big ideas are born fully formed, so most new ideas have to go through some refinement and elaboration to make them operational

Sometimes, the process of operationalization is successful, meaning that eventually everyone agrees on the definition of the concept and can go out and apply it. For instance, everybody agrees what “gross primary productivity” is. There might be practical obstacles to measuring it in any particular case, and different ways of measuring it might be prone to different sorts of errors. But those are practical obstacles, not conceptual ones.

But sometimes, the process of operationalization fails.

Continue reading

All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s early days. So my enthusiasm for the project remains high, but so does my anxiety that I can pull it off. It’s not paralyzing anxiety–most days, I don’t worry about the book at all. I’m too absorbed in working on it, or on whatever other task commands my attention that day. But it’s there.

I’m dealing with that anxiety by identifying specific things I’m anxious about, and addressing them. So here’s a list of all my worries about my book, along with how I’m dealing with them. This is mostly for my own reference, but maybe it will help someone out there to know that even tenured full professors sometimes worry if they’re up to (some aspect of) the job.

Continue reading