I’m a bit late to this, which is embarrassing because I was involved in it. Back in May, Functional Ecology published a special feature (well, they call it an “extended spotlight”) on community phylogenetics. I helped edit the special feature, along with Anita Narwani, Patrick Venail, and Blake Matthews. Here’s our introductory editorial, which basically argues that phylogenetic community ecology has gone too far down the well-trodden
road dead end of trying to infer process from pattern and that it’s high time for a course correction.
If it sounds rather like some old blog posts of mine (e.g., this and this), well, that’s no accident. It’s because of those old posts that Anita and Patrick invited me to join the team (they were the driving force behind this, having organized the symposium this special feature grew out of). So there’s a tangible benefit of blogging to add to the rather short list–you might get mistaken for an expert and invited to edit a special feature. 🙂 That my involvement in this project grew out of my blogging is my tissue-thin justification for posting about it.
The four papers in the special feature are quite different in terms of the specific topics addressed and the approaches used to address them. But they’re all nice examples of contrarian ecology, pushing back against the current conventional wisdom.
Kraft et al. use modern coexistence theory to rethink and make precise the disturbingly-popular-for-such-a-vague-idea notion of “environmental filtering”. They then review the literature and find that most studies of “environmental filtering” don’t actually present evidence of environmental filtering, properly defined. They argue that current vague usage of the term overstates the importance of abiotic tolerance in determining community composition. A nice example of something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately–how attempts to quantify vague concepts often just paper over the vagueness, leading to confusion rather than insight. One consequence of their argument (which I agree with 100%, btw) is to undermine a recently-proposed method for generating simulated datasets structured by a specified strength of environmental filtering. Which is kind of a funny coincidence, because the lead author of that method also wrote one of the papers in this special feature.
Gerhold et al. challenge the idea that the phylogenetic relatedness of co-occurring species can be used to infer the mechanisms driving community assembly. They point out that this idea depends on numerous strong assumptions that are weakly supported at best. They suggest more useful things that ecologists can do with phylogenies besides trying (futilely) to use them as a convenient shortcut to discovering community assembly mechanisms.
Venail et al. show, contrary to some recent claims, species richness, not phylogenetic diversity, predicts total biomass and temporal stability of total biomass in BDEF experiments with grassland plants.
Finally, Münkemüller et al. use evolutionary simulations to show that commonly-used measures of “phylogenetic niche conservatism”, such as phylogenetic signal, actually are very hard to interpret, and often are highly misleading guides to the underlying evolutionary processes governing niche evolution.
It will be interesting to see if these papers have much impact. I predict that Venail et al. will. It’s a comprehensive review of a purely empirical topic, and so I think it will quickly become the standard reference on that topic. The impact of Münkemüller et al. is harder to predict. My guess is it’ll get cited in passing a lot, but that people will mostly keep doing what they’ve been doing on the (dubious) grounds that there’s no easy alternative. I think Gerhold et al. and Kraft et al. will have little impact, unfortunately. They’re telling community ecologists to abandon an easy-to-follow recipe that purports to allow inference of process from pattern. Community ecologists only reluctantly abandon such recipes. But a minority of ambitious community ecologists will recognize that there’s an opportunity to do really-high impact work by following the lead of Kraft et al. rather than by following the crowd.
The editorial and the papers are open access, so check them out.