Some Reflections on Evo-Eco

Some ecologists study evolutionary processes and we call them evolutionary ecologists. They have their own journals and are a thriving field of science. Other ecologists study populations, communities, and ecosystems in ecological time and do not in general concern themselves with evolutionary changes.The question is should they? Evo-Eco is a search for evolutionary changes that have a decisive impact on observable ecological changes like that of a collapsing bird population.

There are two schools of thought. The first is that evo-eco is very important and the changes that ecologists are trying to understand are partly caused by ecological mechanisms like predation and competition but are also associated with genetic changes that affect survival and reproduction. Consequently an ecologist studying the declining bird population should study both genetics and ecology. The second school of thought is that evo-eco is rarely of any importance in causing ecological changes, so that we can more or less ignore genetics if we wish to understand why this bird population is disappearing.

A practical problem immediately rears its head. To be safe we should all follow evo-eco in case genetics is involved in dynamics. But given the number of problems that ecologists face, the number of scientists available to analyse them, and the research dollars available it is rare to have the time, energy or money to take the comprehensive route. Conservation ecologists are perhaps the most tightly squeezed of all ecologists because they have no time to spare. Environmental managers request answers about what to do, and the immediate causes of conservation problems are (as everyone knows) habitat loss, introduced pests and diseases, and pollution.

The consequence of all this is that the two schools of thought drift apart. I cannot foresee any easy way to solve this issue. Progress in evolutionary ecology is often very slow and knowing the past rarely gives us much insight into predicting the human-affected future. Progress in conventional ecology is faster but our understanding is based on short-term studies of unknown generality for future events. Both schools of thought race along with mathematical models that may or may not tell us anything about the real world, but are conceptually elegant and in a pinch might be called progress if we had time to test them adequately.

The most useful evo-eco approach has been to look at human-caused selection via fishing for large sized fish or hunting for Dall sheep with the largest horns. The overuse of antibiotics for human sickness and as prophylactics for our farm animals is another classic case in which to understand the ecological dynamics we need to know the evolutionary changes that we humans have caused. These are clear cases in which genetic insights can teach us very much.

I end with a story from my past. In the 1950s, nearly 70 years ago now, Dennis Chitty working at Oxford on population fluctuations in small grassland rodents considered that he could reject most of the conventional explanations for animal population changes, and he suggested that individuals might change in quality with population density. This change he thought might involve genetic selection for traits that were favourable only in high density populations that reappeared every 3-4 years. So in some strange sense he was one of the earliest evo-eco ecologists. The result was that he was nearly laughed out of Oxford by the geneticists in control. The great evolutionary geneticist E.B. Ford told Chitty he was completely mad to think that short term selection was possible on a scale to impact population dynamics. Genetic changes took dozens to hundreds of years at the best of time. There were of course in the 1950s only the most primitive of genetic methods available for mammals that all look the same in their coat colour, and the idea that changes in animal behaviour involving territoriality might cause genetic shifts on a short-term period gradually lost favour. Few now think that Chitty was right in being evo-eco, but in some sense he was ahead of his time in thinking that natural selection might operate quickly in field populations. Given the many physiological and behavioural changes that can occur phenotypically in mammals, most subsequent work on grassland rodents has become buried in mechanisms that do not change because of genetic selection.

When we try to sort out whether to be concerned about evo-eco, we must strike a compromise between what the exact question is that we are trying to investigate, and how we can best construct a decision tree that can operate in real time with results that are useful for the research question. Not every ecological problem can be solved by sequencing the study organism.

Chitty, D. 1960. Population processes in the vole and their relevance to general theory. Canadian Journal of Zoology 38:99-113.

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