Poll: What should a community ecology class cover?

This fall I will be teaching a graduate-level community ecology class for the first time. Most people would say that community ecology is one of the five or so main subdisciplines of ecology along with physiological ecology, population ecology, ecosystem ecology and maybe behavioral ecology.

In the 1970s community ecology was an “in” field. Then in the 1980s and 1990s my perspective is that community ecology was passe. I started graduate school in 1997 and I well remember how all my graduate student peers would say things like “I study species interactions” rather than use the phrase “community ecology”. Now community ecology feels very much like a reinvigorated, “cool” field again, but in part because the lines have blurred with topics like macroecology and global change ecology.

So it has been an interesting exercise for me to think through what exactly should be covered in a community ecology class. Its a bit of a definitional exercise in defining what I think community ecology is today. There is definitely more than enough material to fill a semester these days, so choices must be made. There are two great textbooks on community ecology by Mittelbach and Morin (both reviewed by Jeremy). So I can look at the tables of contents there, but there are some noticeable differences from the choices I will make.

So I thought it would be fun to take a reader survey to see what topics people think belong in an early graduate (e.g. first year graduate student) community ecology class.There are 30+ topics. Each topic could easily take 1 week to cover (in fact could easily be an entire semester seminar), and here at Maine we typically have a 15 week semester, so assuming we’ll squeeze a few topics together, you can pick up to 20 topics (it would be no fun if you could check everything!). I’m sure there are other ways to organize/slice&dice these topics, but this is a reasonable approximation. What would you prioritize in a community ecology class? What are your top 20 priorities for an introductory graduate level community ecology class? Take our poll (NB: I have NOT randomized the order presented to keep related topics close to each other, but please make sure you read to the end and don’t just bias towards the first things you see):


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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

11 thoughts on “Poll: What should a community ecology class cover?

  1. Great idea for a poll! I’m very interested to see what other community ecologists think about this list. I was curious about which of these topics might be covered together, and which really need stand alone weeks. For example, I didn’t check “ecosystem services” as a topic, but I’d definitely talk about them when we covered “Biodiversity & Ecosystem Function”. Similarly I think that “Neutral Theory” and “Metacommunity Theory” can be covered together in a single module, given that the former has been incorporated into the larger conceptual model of the latter. What groups do people on the blog tend to roll together? Versus which topics truly require a stand alone module?

  2. I basically used the poll as an excuse to suggest something fairly different from what Morin or Mittelbach do. Basically something with a narrower and more conceptual focus on diversity and coexistence, organized around Chesson’s ideas. And actively avoiding (or only mentioning in passing) “classic” stuff that, at least in my view, is outdated or misleading (e.g., Hutchinson’s ideas about niches, limiting similarity). But also avoiding stuff that (again, in my view) is more of a current bandwagon than something that’s likely to last. The end result is something to which Mark Vellend’s QRB paper would be a pretty reasonable overview.

    If you were uncomfortable with making that the focus of the whole course, then I might suggest breaking the course into two halves. One half as suggested above, the other half on (say) food webs and trophic structure. Or on macroecology. Or some other coherent, tightly-integrated set of topics.

    At graduate level I think there’s an argument for courses that give students a coherent conceptual roadmap of the field–courses that are taught from a distinctive point of view, and that cover a tightly-integrated set of topics that all hang together. As opposed to more of a survey-type thing–a list of the most popular (or most currently-trendy) topics, even if those topics often are unrelated to one another. Of course, there’s an obvious argument for a survey course too. I just wanted to make sure that, in addition to talking about what topics you’d include in a survey-type course, we talked about other possibilities besides survey-type courses.

  3. A few thoughts on the poll results so far:

    -not that many people see to want macroecology in their graduate-level community ecology course. Species abundance distributions, species area curves, climate-species interactions, and “other macroecology” all well down the list. Which is interesting since as Brian notes community ecology in the journals seems to be increasingly merging with biogeography and global change-y stuff at the moment.

    -not many people think this course should deal with evolution, except maybe for character displacement in the context of limiting similarity. And the closely-related subject of adaptive behavior (optimal foraging, induced defenses, Red Queen, etc.) also is way down the list.

    -I’m very surprised “networks” is way down the list. Would’ve thought that would be a trendy pick.

    -Interesting (though not surprising) that “biodiversity and ecosystem function” is way higher on the list than “ecosystem services”.

    -a lot depends on the details of what exactly you teach. For instance, “coexistence theory” and “niche overlap/limiting similarity” are both among the top vote getters–and they’re in a fair bit of tension with one another (at least if by “coexistence theory” you mean “the work of Peter Chesson and others who’ve thought along the same lines”). But perhaps a lot of people who voted for both aren’t thinking of “coexistence theory” in the same way I am.

  4. As a graduate student I took a community ecology course and we used Morin’s book as a guide. Personally I think it is a great book, but pretty basic. A lot of those concepts you learn in multiple classes and while an in depth conversation was nice I would have rather used that book as a resource. I love the idea of talking about the history of community ecology which I believe can include a lot of the basic ideas and using meta-analyses of some of the topics to create a timeline of thought/ bringing it all together. And I think discussing where research is going, including the ‘bandwagon’ topics would be a great way to discuss in a graduate class what people really think about those topics (i.e., Why are they bandwagon ideas, where do they originate, are they really getting at process or just focusing on pattern, do you think this will be a zombie idea). As a graduate student, I really enjoy and get more out of a class where we synthesize the area of research rather than just discuss papers (not that discussing papers is not super valuable).

  5. I just overhauled my Marine Community Ecology class and I’ve greatly reduced the number of topics and habitat types we cover in favor of spending much more time on fewer areas. In general, as we all (hopefully) move away from the passive – socratic method to teaching with active learning and with far greater student engagement, we will be drilling in more, either in a given system or sub discipline or whatever. Point being, which of the boxes you choose / check is not critical as long as your don’t check them all! (less is more & survey courses suck)

    • That’s a good question. Although community ecology was clearly happening – Andrewartha talked about metapopulations and metacommunities in the 1950s, many famous experiments on predation were done by Park and Huffaker & Nicholson in the 1950s, Clements wrote about plant competition in the 1920s and 1930s, and etc. But I don’t think ecology was big enough as a field to start defining and naming its subfields. I guess I would have to look at a 1960s ecology text to be sure (there were a few although there were a flood that came out in the 1970s which says something about the development of the field).

  6. Pingback: Different types of hands-on projects in a natural history course | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: What are the key ecology concepts all Intro Bio students should learn? | Dynamic Ecology

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