Recent ecology & evolution papers I thought were really good

A while back we asked y’all what changes you’d like to see us make to the blog. One suggestion was “posts highlighting recently-published papers”. I responded that I wasn’t super-motivated to write such posts. Lots of people and organizations already write such posts (e.g., Faculty of 1000, PEGE Journal Club), I generally don’t read such posts myself, and back when I was at Oikos Blog I did this sort of post and nobody read them. But there’s value in experimentation, and such posts do have the virtue of being easy to write. And maybe if I bang away enough about the sort of stuff I think is really good, I’ll nudge y’all towards admiring (and doing!) the same sort of stuff (mwahahahahahahaha!).* So here are a few recent papers that I thought were really good.

Just so there are no misunderstandings: this list is off the top of my head. I didn’t even comprehensively search my memory of the stuff I’ve read and liked, much less comprehensively search the entire recent literature. So don’t read anything into the fact that I probably didn’t list your favorite recent paper.

Hammerschmidt et al. 2014 Nature. Life cycles, fitness decoupling, and the evolution of multicellularity. The best paper I’ve read in years. I love everything about it. The tested hypothesis is the product of deep philosophical thought which reveals serious problems with the standard way that everyone (including me) thinks about multi-level selection and the evolution of multicellularity. This new way of conceiving the problem leads to a testable hypothesis, which the authors nailed in a really elegant series of experiments. Right down to the underlying genetics, if you’re into that sort of thing. The results are also very cute, in that the very same factors that you’d think would prevent the evolution of multicellularity (on the conventional understanding of the problem) also create the conditions for it to evolve (on the new understanding of the problem). If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, Rainey & Kerr 2010 is helpful background reading.

Stewart and Plotkin 2014 PNAS. Collapse of cooperation in evolving games. A major limitation of every application of game theory to evolution is that the payoffs to different actions are assumed to be fixed. In reality, they’re free to evolve (e.g., Turner & Chao 2003). Stewart and Plotkin figured out how to model games in which both the players’ strategies, and the payoffs to those strategies, can evolve. One reason I admire this paper is because it’s getting at a very important problem that hasn’t been much addressed in any context as far as I know: how do ecological and evolutionary systems behave when organisms have many different “options”, rather than just one or two? For instance, what if you can respond to the presence of a resource competitor not just by shifting your own resource use (as in character displacement), but also have the option to change your resource requirements, or attack your competitor, or move to a different area, or go dormant, or etc.?

Kraft et al. 2015 PNAS. Plant functional traits and the multidimensional nature of species coexistence. Thank God somebody is finally bringing modern coexistence theory into “trait-based” ecology (well, they’re not the first; Angert et al. 2009 is great too). Unsurprisingly, the results undermine popular attempts to use trait patterns to infer coexistence mechanisms. And the fact that the authors had to run a massive competition experiment in addition to compiling trait data is in my view a feature, not a bug. Nobody said ecology was easy. And attempts to make it easy (e.g., by trying to infer process from pattern) have a pretty much unbroken track record of failure.

Gremer and Venable 2014 Ecology Letters. Bet hedging in desert winter annual plants: optimal germination strategies in a variable environment. I saw Jennifer Gremer talk about this work at the ESA meeting, it was a great talk. It’s a great paper too. Tightly links a biological model and long-term data to not only show that 12 species of desert annuals bet hedge, but that they do so near-optimally (!) Bet hedging is one of those things on which there’s lots of suggestive data but very few definitive examples.

*I hope I didn’t say that out loud just now. Because of the unfreezing process I have no inner monologue. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Recent ecology & evolution papers I thought were really good

  1. Thanks a lot for this post. As a grad student, I really appreciate hearing and reading bits about what papers others fine important to the field.

  2. It’s awesome to read recent summaries of articles related to the theories my husband and I bat around before bedtime (that is, the first two summaries). Thanks and keep ’em coming!

  3. Thanks for this post. It is interesting and useful. I’d say that because it is your list first and foremost, and features papers that may not be highlighted elsewhere, it makes it particularly interesting and not ‘just another list’.

    • Thanks David.

      Re: these papers possibly not being highlighted elsewhere, I have no idea. One could argue that they were all published in very high-profile, widely-read journals, so in that sense were already “highlighted”. In any case, I should maybe make clear that I don’t make any special effort to “sing the unsung” (not that you were suggesting I was, but just in case anyone thinks I do…). Here, and in other posts where I’ve discussed specific papers at greater length (e.g., here and here), my only criterion is “did I personally find the paper sufficiently interesting and important to want to talk about it?”

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