A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Today’s question is from Don S, and is paraphrased and modified from the original. Because the original bet Don offered seemed…unattractive. (Sorry Don.) 🙂
What is the least trivial/most profound ecological study or pattern you are willing to attempt to replicate, confident that your replication attempt would succeed?
Jeremy’s answer: I have an old post on betting your beliefs in science. But it doesn’t address your specific question.
My answer would depend on the stakes. The original stakes you suggested–win and you get the satisfaction of winning, lose and you die–would lead me to pick some pattern that’s already extremely well-established, such as “larger areas contain more species”. I’m not staking my life on my prescience! But if the stakes are the sort usually associated with one’s choice of study question, then this gets more interesting. If we rephrase your question as “what is the most interesting or least obvious ‘stylized fact’ that you’re reasonably confident will turn out to be true?”, I’ll go with Bjørnstad’s (2000) observation that large-scale spatial synchrony of cycling populations is lost if those populations stop cycling, due to loss of dispersal-induced phase locking. That generalization is based only on a few toy models and a couple of empirical observations, so it’s very far from being an established fact. And I suspect many people who work on spatial synchrony probably don’t buy it. But I’ll stick my neck out and bet that it’s true. The recent collapse of population cycles in many northern European mammals may provide an opportunity to test my intuition on this. Now that they’ve stopped cycling, they should either lose spatial synchrony entirely (since dispersal no longer has any population cycles to phase lock), or exhibit a very different spatial pattern of synchrony due primarily to the Moran effect. Somebody should totally check this! Unless of course it’s a dumb or infeasible idea for reasons I’m unaware of, in which case forget I ever suggested that. 🙂
I guess I’m going to define this question as “what is the most risky hypothesis you would risk valuable time and energy on because you believe it to be true”. This is quite a bit more risky than ones I would stake my life on (for which I came up with the same answer as Jeremy – larger areas hold more species). Its probably even more risky than Jeremy’s framing as I would say these are likely to be found, not that I am confident they will be found. Here are a couple:
- Many authors over the years have predicted that (at least for birds) population dynamics across an entire range are having some ideal-free-distribution like behaviors (namely individual move from locations that are good but with high population densities to poorer but lower density locations. The evidence that variability is higher in poor sites than high quality sites is quite consistent and suggestive. But nobody has ever found evidence of this. Yet I strongly believe it is true and worth staking research effort on.
- A significant part of the latitudinal gradient in diversity is based not on mean climate but on climate variability. Again this has often been suggested, and I strongly believe it to be true. But it has never moved strongly to the fore as an explanation.