Peter Abrams: suggested readings

Following up on my appreciation of Peter Abrams, here are some suggested readings from his “back catalog”. My suggestions reflect my own interests and opinions–it’s not a list of his most-cited papers–but I do think they’ll give you a good sense of what Peter Abrams was all about.

This is a longer list than I originally intended, and reading all the papers on this list would be a significant time commitment. So I’ve annotated the list to help you pick and choose.

Abrams, P.A. 1975. Limiting similarity and the form of the competition coefficient. Theoretical Population Biology 8:356-375. Peter’s first critique of the notion that there is a universal limit to how similar coexisting competitors can be, a theme he returned to repeatedly over the years. The overall conclusion of this body of work: yes, there can be limits to similarity–but not necessarily. Further, precisely what the limits are, and how they vary as you vary properties of species and their environment, is highly case-specific.

Abrams, P.A. 1983. The competitive exclusion principle: other views and a reply. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 1:131-132. Not an original research paper; just a comment deftly demolishing a zombie-filled critique of competition theory. And unfortunately, a depressing read because many of the same zombie ideas Peter was ably shredding in 1983 are alive and well today. In particular, note Peter’s critique of the notion that competitive exclusion is more likely among closely related species. Um, no. More closely related species may be more likely to overlap in resource use, which is one prerequisite for competitive exclusion–but they’re also more likely to be similar in competitive ability, making exclusion less likely. It’s not clear, theoretically or empirically, what the net result of those two countervailing effects will be. Mayfield and Levine (2010 Ecology Letters) is a recent major paper making exactly the same point. I have no idea if Peter Abrams feels like this man, but one could certainly forgive him if he does!

Abrams, P. 1984. Variability in resource consumption rates and the coexistence of competing species. Theoretical Population Biology 25:106-124. Relatively little-known paper on competitive coexistence in variable environments, now being followed up by Peter Chesson’s group.

Abrams, P.A. 1987. Alternative models of character displacement and niche shift. I. Adaptive shifts in resource use when there is competition for nutritionally nonsubstitutable resources. Evolution 41:651-661. Think competition always selects for species to use different resources than their competitors? Think again. If the resources for which competition occurs are nutritionally nonsubstitutable (e.g., for plants, there’s no substitute for light, or water, or phosphorus), then competition selects for convergence in resource use. If this idea is right (and it’s never been tested), the implications are potentially massive, since there are lots of species which probably compete for nonsubstitutable resources. A good example of Peter at his best, alerting readers to important, unrecognized possibilities using a very simple, well-motivated theoretical argument. I’ve done some work with Dave Vasseur building on this (Vasseur and Fox 2008).

Abrams, P.A. 1987. On classifying interactions between populations. Oecologia 73:272-281. Defining “competition” is trickier than you might think…

Abrams, P.A. 1988. How should resources be counted? Theoretical Population Biology 33:226-242. Maybe Hutchinson’s “paradox of the plankton” isn’t a paradox after all, and only looks that way because we’re not counting “limiting resources” the way algae count them!

Abrams, P.A. et al. 1993. Evolutionarily unstable fitness maxima and stable fitness minima of continuous traits. Evolutionary Ecology 7:465-487, and Abrams, P.A. et al. 1993. On the relationship between quantitative genetic and ESS models. Evolution 47:982-985. Counts as one selection. Peter Abrams and his collaborators basically invent “adaptive dynamics” and show how it relates to other major approaches for modeling the adaptive evolution of quantitative traits. Very important work.

Abrams, P.A. 1993. Effects of increased productivity on the abundances of trophic levels. American Naturalist 141:351-371. How do “bottom up effects” propagate up food webs? It depends on the food web topology. Still relevant today: Wollrab et al. (2012 Ecology Letters) just published a paper building on it.

Abrams, P.A. 1994. The fallacies of ratio-dependent predation. Ecology 75:1842-1850. Never heard of “ratio-dependent predation”? That’s because this paper pretty much killed off that once-hot idea off before it could become widely established.

Abrams, P.A. 1995. Monotonic or unimodal diversity-productivity gradients: what does competition theory predict? Ecology 76:2019-2027. The next time somebody tries to tell you that humped diversity-productivity relationships are well-established theoretically, tell them to read this review. Bottom line: there are lots of reasons to expect something other than a unimodal relationship, and lots of reasons to expect a unimodal relationship that have nothing to do with competition.

Abrams, P.A. 2002. Will small population size warn us of impending extinctions? American Naturalist 160:293-305. Even very simple models of population dynamics in gradually deteriorating environments turn out to predict surprising extinction dynamics. At least, surprising until Peter Abrams has explained them to you. A nice example of using simple models to replace the reader’s pre-theoretical intuitions with new, improved intuitions.

Abrams, P.A. and Wilson, W.G. 2004. Coexistence of competitors in metacommunities due to spatial variation in resource growth rates: does R* predict the outcome of competition? Ecology Letters 10:929-940. Very neat paper showing a novel mechanism by which dispersal can alter competitive outcomes within patches. Basically, dispersal creates spatial heterogeneity in competitive outcomes that wouldn’t exist otherwise, rather than altering pre-existing spatial heterogeneity in competitive outcomes. I once tried to test this, but didn’t really go about it the right way. Someone should try again, I think it’s pretty doable in microcosms.

Abrams, P.A. 2007. Defining and measuring the impact of dynamic traits on interspecific interactions. Ecology 88:2555-2562. Peter identifies, and resolves, important conceptual confusion in the empirical literature on “trait-mediated effects”. A nice illustration of why theory is essential to the interpretation of empirical data.

Abrams, P.A. 2007. Habitat choice in predator-prey systems: spatial instability due to interacting adaptive movements. American Naturalist 169:581-594. The list wouldn’t be representative if I didn’t include something from Peter’s voluminous work on adaptive behavior and its dynamical consequences.

11 thoughts on “Peter Abrams: suggested readings

  1. I really like a very small paper he wrote (open access): ‘Adaptive Dynamics’ vs. ‘adaptive dynamics’ (2005) -> It clarifies a couple of subtleties in the AD literature.

    Wait wait wait, ratio-dependent predation has not been killed. Abrams wrote a paper with Ginzburg in 2000 where they basically agree that they agree on a lot of things. It’s more a question of which idealized form is better than a question of being “right” or “wrong”.

    • Yes, I know both papers and like them.

      Re: Abrams and Ginzburg, if memory serves, they agreed that predator-dependence in functional responses was something demanding much more empirical and theoretical study, but agreed to disagree on whether ratio dependence (a very specific form of predator dependence) made conceptual sense.

    • And when I say “ratio-dependence is dead”, I don’t mean that literally everyone has given up on it (probably Lev Ginzburg hasn’t, I don’t know). I only mean that the vast majority of theoretical and empirical ecologists no longer consider it worth studying. So if it’s not literally dead, it’s functionally dead.

  2. I’d also like to nominate “Modelling the adaptive dynamics of traits involved in inter- and intraspecific interactions: An assessment of three methods”, Ecology Letters, (2001) 4 : 166-175 (maybe too similar to the 1993 papers, but a good read)

  3. Pingback: Friday links: is it better for your paper to get rejected before being published, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    A rare “ecology nerdery” post, but Dynamic Ecology is Very Good Blog, and this is a Very Good Reading List (much of which, I have to admit, I’ve not yet read!) The subjects and examples of sound science are, however, extremely worthy of attention (imho).

  5. Via email, Lev Ginzburg comments. His comment is below, and I have posted it at his request.
    I would like to comment on your rushed dismissal of the ratio-dependent predation model following Peter Abrams “fallacy” paper of 1994. In the years following his paper we responded to Peter’s arguments multiple times, and in 2000 Peter and I came to an understanding and wrote a joint paper, published in TREE. Though we still disagree on which model should (in the absence of data) be the default, even a cursory reading of this joint paper from 2000 will show that Peter and I agree on the vast majority of the issues.

    As for the suggestion that the ratio-dependent model has been “killed off,” I think this contention is not borne out by the evidence. Roger Arditi and myself published a book last year (How Species Interact, OUP, 2012) which has garnered extremely favorable reviews (in Science, TREE, the QRB, etc.) by significant people (R. O. Peterson, D. L. DeAngelis, C. J. Krebs). You can read some of the reviews on Roger’s website ( To a large extent, the new book follows Abrams and Ginzburg 2000, but with a lot of additional evidence. Arditi and I show that true natural interactions are much closer to ratio than to prey dependence (about .75 towards our suggested end of the interference spectrum of 0 to 1.0). So, in our view, if you must make a single binary choice it has to be for ratio dependence. Otherwise, as my work with Peter also demonstrated, the truth lies in the middle, though strongly tilted towards ratio-dependence.
    Lev also asked me for any response I had. While I very much disagree with Lev’s views on the theoretical and empirical value of ratio-dependent models (as distinct from the many other possible models of predator-dependence in functional responses), and remain to be convinced of a widespread revival of interest in ratio-dependence, I welcome and appreciate Lev’s comments. I think the debate about ratio-dependence in ecology has been a model of vigorous but productive and professional debate, and Lev has of course been a leading contributor to that debate. I’ll continue to follow the future development of this debate with interest.

  6. Pingback: Revisiting Abrams et al. 1993 – Reflections on Papers Past

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.