Ask us anything: recent community ecology research that belongs in the textbooks

The next questions in our annual ask us anything series come from Tadhg Carroll:

Brian, if you were still working on the 2nd edition of “Community Ecology” with Gary Mittelbach, are there any recent lines of research you would like to include that have emerged over the last year or so? These might include topics you’d like to place more (or less) emphasis on, particularly impressive papers (or clusters of papers?!), or enlightening reviews, meta-analyses or books. It would be particularly interesting to hear if there’s been any recent work that has changed or crystallized your thinking on a topic, or progress that has impressed you on any areas from the “Looking Ahead” section of the final chapter.

Jeremy, I’ll give you a multiple choice question related to this (that is, choose a question, not the traditional choose an answer…). Are there any topics or approaches that you would place more emphasis on if you were writing a textbook on Community Ecology?; AND/OR, what recent line of research have you found particularly impressive, interesting or enlightening over the same period of the last year or two.

Jeremy’s answer:

My reviews of existing community ecology textbooks (1st edition of Mittelbach, 2nd edition of Morin), and of Mark Vellend’s book, partially answer the question “What topics would I place emphasis on if I were writing a community ecology textbook?” But honestly, I’m not sure that the choice of topic X or Y is the most important thing when writing a graduate textbook. At least, not for values of X or Y on which there could be reasonable disagreement as to whether to include them in a textbook. I think the primary purpose of a graduate-level textbook is to provide a coherent “road map” or “framework” of the discipline. So that grad students not only gain some passing familiarity with various topics, but so that they can see how research on all those topics fits together into a coherent whole.

There’s no brand-new result or line of research published in the last year or two that I think definitely belongs in a community ecology textbook. I do think textbooks should change as the field changes, but not every year! It’s just very, very rare for some new result or line of research in ecology to be so obviously important, and of such obviously lasting value, that one would want to include it in a textbook within a year or two of the first paper. You don’t want a textbook to enshrine–or create–some trendy bandwagon. And if a brand-new topic is really that important, nobody’s going to need a textbook to hear about it. They’ll hear about it by reading leading journals, attending conferences, following social media, and doing all the other things people do to keep up with the current literature. Just off the top of my head, I can’t recall any topic that gets substantial coverage in Mittelbach or Morin that wasn’t at least 3+ years old when those textbooks were published.

Brian’s answer:

The 2nd edition picked up several topics people had regularly asked about including traits (a full chapter) and succession (a brief section). One topic we’ve frequently been asked to add is disease ecology. It’s been such a growing and important field in ecology (and wildlife biology) in its own right. I think Gary & I both recognized that (and nodded to it in the future directions section), but neither of us really had the expertise to pull it off. I think any edition after COVID is going to have to have a chapter on disease ecology. I see such a fundamental disconnect between ecologists who understand exponential growth and most of the world who doesn’t. Ecologists clearly have a role to play in future societal discussions about disease (even if some of the early forays based on supposed climate envelopes of COVID did not go well). It might be time by the time the 3rd edition rolls around to add a chapter on anthropogenic impacts. We’ve tried to interweave this throughout the book, but it might be time for a chapter on that too. Of course I hasten to own these are solely my thoughts at this moment in time and the first author on the book (Gary!) has a lot to say about this too!

I would second Jeremy’s notion that a year is not long enough for a paper to emerge as “textbook important”. And we tried to sweep in newish papers all the way up to the deadline to the publishers in the last edition. So it is going to take a few years to see what new papers/topics emerge. Kind of in the same vein, I think the last chapter on future directions continues to hold up well, and I can’t think of a change I would make at this time. But I don’t want to be completely non-responsive. Here are four areas of papers that I am watching anticipating they will grow big.

  • Jeanine Cavendar-Bares and colleagues are doing some really cool stuff on small scale spectral analysis, large-scale remote sensing spectral analysis, traits, phylogeny, environment by trait by fitness interactions.
  • The biodiversity response to Anthropocene is moving past focusing on the mean and starting to quantify and try to explain the variance (why does one species go up when another species goes down in population size). Haven’t seen a definitive answer (or set of answers) but its on the tip of our tongues right now.
  • There is growing momentum to lock up (I.e. large data analyses published supporting) the idea of spatial homogenization in the Anthropocene (i.e. decline of spatial beta diversity), but I am a bit of a skeptic in that we could be seeing a publication bias. I personally am waiting for some analyses of very large data sets and suspect they could well suggest humans are both homogenizing and heterogenizing depending on scale, organism, etc. That has been the case for every other anthropogenic effect and I see no reason for spatial beta diversity to be special.
  • Finally we are just beginning to truly quantify the total biomass on this planet. The Bar On 2018 paper was a landmark but we’re now seeing serious efforts at quantifying how much tree biomass has been removed by humans, how much fish biomass would be there with and without humans and generally trying to get at secondary productivity and biomass that have largely remained untouched before big data. And did you know we don’t have a decisive answer of whether there is more annual NPP in the oceans or on land that a large majority of scientists would agree upon? This is really fundamental stuff (just as fundamental as how many species are on the planet) and we are still factor of twoing if not order of magnituding!

4 thoughts on “Ask us anything: recent community ecology research that belongs in the textbooks

  1. It’s a great question, and one I’m grappling with at the moment while I prepare another edition of my own textbook (watch out for Ecological Systems, coming out through Cambridge University Press in about two years). In the 2016 edition I had tried to spot emerging waves of exciting research and offer some sense of their direction, but in revising for the new edition I’ve found that my ability to spot genuine movements was pretty poor. A lot of them represented flurries of activity that didn’t go much further and they’re now being edited out rather than updated. That’s not a comment on the quality of the research, but more a reflection on what an ecology student really needs to know about the underlying structure of the field. Being concise is more important than being complete.

    Instead of trying to spot trendy hot topics, I’m now focussing on more incremental areas such as trait-based approaches to ecosystem functioning or the role that parasites (and, yes, diseases) play in structuring communities. There are some large gaps in our understanding of these areas. To make an analogy, I’m trying to spot seams that might be worth mining rather than picking out the latest shiny gems.

    • “In the 2016 edition I had tried to spot emerging waves of exciting research and offer some sense of their direction, but in revising for the new edition I’ve found that my ability to spot genuine movements was pretty poor. A lot of them represented flurries of activity that didn’t go much further and they’re now being edited out rather than updated. ”

      Very interesting remark.

      “I’m trying to spot seams that might be worth mining rather than picking out the latest shiny gems.”

      Interesting. So one role of a textbook (like one role of a review paper) is to point out promising/needed directions of future research to the reader?

      • It’s only honest to indicate where any uncertainties lie within the field, but this can be framed positively as part of the pitch for the readers. I want to convey the fact that there is lots of potential for exciting new discoveries and contributions in ecology, and to give students the impression that they can play a part. Hopefully they will be excited enough that they want to explore the primary literature. Whether this is appropriate for any individual textbook will vary though. If you’re writing about a relatively fixed canon, or aiming to develop a set of specific competencies, then it would be unnecessary. You don’t want a stats-for-bio textbook to be trying to turn your students into statistics researchers.

        Review papers, on the other hand, are mostly preaching to the converted. Readers don’t usually get as far as the ‘future research’ paragraph of a 6000-word review if they’re not already invested to some extent, whereas a textbook can be a chance to win over undecided readers and excite them about the field as a whole. I’m sure that most authors of review papers would love the same to be true, but I’m sceptical that those passages achieve much more than to justify the next grant proposal.

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