To manage and conserve biodiversity, one must know what is being lost, where, and why, as well as which remedies are likely to be most effective. Metabarcoding technology can characterise the species compositions of mass samples of eukaryotes or of environmental DNA. Here, we validate metabarcoding by testing it against three high-quality standard data sets that were collected in Malaysia (tropical), China (subtropical) and the United Kingdom (temperate) and that comprised 55,813 arthropod and bird specimens identified to species level with the expenditure of 2,505 person-hours of taxonomic expertise. The metabarcode and standard data sets exhibit statistically correlated alpha- and beta-diversities, and the two data sets produce similar policy conclusions for two conservation applications: restoration ecology and systematic conservation planning. Compared with standard biodiversity data sets, metabarcoded samples are taxonomically more comprehensive, many times quicker to produce, less reliant on taxonomic expertise and auditable by third parties, which is essential for dispute resolution.
Intrinsic processes are assumed to underlie life history expression and trade-offs, but extrinsic inputs are theorised to shift trait expression and mask trade-offs within species. Here, we explore application of this theory across species. We do this based on parentally induced embryo temperature as an extrinsic input, and mass-specific embryo metabolism as an intrinsic process, underlying embryonic development rate. We found that embryonic metabolism followed intrinsic allometry rules among 49 songbird species from temperate and tropical sites. Extrinsic inputs via parentally induced temperatures explained the majority of variation in development rates and masked a relationship with metabolism; metabolism explained a minor proportion of the variation in development rates among species, and only after accounting for temperature effects. We discuss evidence that temperature further obscures the expected interspecific trade-off between development rate and offspring quality. These results demonstrate the importance of considering extrinsic inputs to trait expression and trade-offs across species.
One important hypothesis to explain tree-species coexistence in tropical forests suggests that increased attack by natural enemies near conspecific trees gives locally rare species a competitive advantage. Host ranges of natural enemies generally encompass several closely related plant taxa suggesting that seedlings should also do poorly around adults of closely related species. We investigated the effects of adult Parashorea malaanonan on seedling survival in a Bornean rain forest. Survival of P. malaanonan seedlings was highest at intermediate distances from parent trees while heterospecific seedlings were unaffected by distance. Leaf herbivores did not drive this relationship. Survival of seedlings was lowest for P. malaanonan, and increased with phylogenetic dissimilarity from this species, suggesting that survival of close relatives of common species is reduced. This study suggests that distance dependence contributes to species coexistence and highlights the need for further investigation into the role of shared plant enemies in community dynamics.
A frequent observation in plant-animal mutualistic networks is that abundant species tend to be more generalised, interacting with a broader range of interaction partners than rare species. Uncovering the causal relationship between abundance and generalisation has been hindered by a chicken-and-egg dilemma: is generalisation a by-product of being abundant, or does high abundance result from generalisation? Here, we analyse a database of plant-pollinator and plant-seed disperser networks, and provide strong evidence that the causal link between abundance and generalisation is uni-directional. Specifically, species appear to be generalists because they are more abundant, but the converse, that is that species become more abundant because they are generalists, is not supported by our analysis. Furthermore, null model analyses suggest that abundant species interact with many other species simply because they are more likely to encounter potential interaction partners.
Understanding how species assemble into communities is a key goal in ecology. However, assembly rules are rarely tested experimentally, and their ability to shape real communities is poorly known. We surveyed a diverse community of epiphyte-dwelling ants and found that similar-sized species co-occurred less often than expected. Laboratory experiments demonstrated that invasion was discouraged by the presence of similarly sized resident species. The size difference for which invasion was less likely was the same as that for which wild species exhibited reduced co-occurrence. Finally we explored whether our experimentally derived assembly rules could simulate realistic communities. Communities simulated using size-based species assembly exhibited diversities closer to wild communities than those simulated using size-independent assembly, with results being sensitive to the combination of rules employed. Hence, species segregation in the wild can be driven by competitive species assembly, and this process is sufficient to generate observed species abundance distributions for tropical epiphyte-dwelling ants.
The impacts of global change on tropical forests remain poorly understood. We examined changes in tree growth rates over the past two decades for all species occurring in large (50-ha) forest dynamics plots in Panama and Malaysia. Stem growth rates declined significantly at both forests regardless of initial size or organizational level (species, community or stand). Decreasing growth rates were widespread, occurring in 24-71% of species at Barro Colorado Island, Panama (BCI) and in 58-95% of species at Pasoh, Malaysia (depending on the sizes of stems included). Changes in growth were not consistently associated with initial growth rate, adult stature, or wood density. Changes in growth were significantly associated with regional climate changes: at both sites growth was negatively correlated with annual mean daily minimum temperatures, and at BCI growth was positively correlated with annual precipitation and number of rainfree days (a measure of relative insolation). While the underlying cause(s) of decelerating growth is still unresolved, these patterns strongly contradict the hypothesized pantropical increase in tree growth rates caused by carbon fertilization. Decelerating tree growth will have important economic and environmental implications.
Determining statistical patterns irrespective of interacting agents (i.e. macroecology) is useful to explore the mechanisms driving population fluctuations and extinctions in natural food webs. Here, we tested four predictions of a neutral model on the distribution of community fluctuations (CF) and the distributions of persistence times (APT). Novel predictions for the food web were generated by combining (1) body size-density scaling, (2) Taylor's law and (3) low efficiency of trophic transference. Predictions were evaluated on an exceptional data set of plankton with 15 years of weekly samples encompassing c. 250 planktonic species from three trophic levels, sampled in the western English Channel. Highly symmetric non-Gaussian distributions of CF support zero-sum dynamics. Variability in CF decreased while a change from an exponential to a power law distribution of APT from basal to upper trophic positions was detected. Results suggest a predictable but profound effect of trophic position on fluctuations and extinction in natural communities.
We introduce a novel framework for conceptualising, quantifying and unifying discordant patterns of species richness along geographical gradients. While not itself explicitly mechanistic, this approach offers a path towards understanding mechanisms. In this study, we focused on the diverse patterns of species richness on mountainsides. We conjectured that elevational range midpoints of species may be drawn towards a single midpoint attractor - a unimodal gradient of environmental favourability. The midpoint attractor interacts with geometric constraints imposed by sea level and the mountaintop to produce taxon-specific patterns of species richness. We developed a Bayesian simulation model to estimate the location and strength of the midpoint attractor from species occurrence data sampled along mountainsides. We also constructed midpoint predictor models to test whether environmental variables could directly account for the observed patterns of species range midpoints. We challenged these models with 16 elevational data sets, comprising 4500 species of insects, vertebrates and plants. The midpoint predictor models generally failed to predict the pattern of species midpoints. In contrast, the midpoint attractor model closely reproduced empirical spatial patterns of species richness and range midpoints. Gradients of environmental favourability, subject to geometric constraints, may parsimoniously account for elevational and other patterns of species richness.
Thermal performance curves (TPCs), which quantify how an ectotherm's body temperature (Tb ) affects its performance or fitness, are often used in an attempt to predict organismal responses to climate change. Here, we examine the key - but often biologically unreasonable - assumptions underlying this approach; for example, that physiology and thermal regimes are invariant over ontogeny, space and time, and also that TPCs are independent of previously experienced Tb. We show how a critical consideration of these assumptions can lead to biologically useful hypotheses and experimental designs. For example, rather than assuming that TPCs are fixed during ontogeny, one can measure TPCs for each major life stage and incorporate these into stage-specific ecological models to reveal the life stage most likely to be vulnerable to climate change. Our overall goal is to explicitly examine the assumptions underlying the integration of TPCs with Tb , to develop a framework within which empiricists can place their work within these limitations, and to facilitate the application of thermal physiology to understanding the biological implications of climate change.
Climate is widely recognised as an important determinant of the latitudinal diversity gradient. However, most existing studies make no distinction between direct and indirect effects of climate, which substantially hinders our understanding of how climate constrains biodiversity globally. Using data from 35 large forest plots, we test hypothesised relationships amongst climate, topography, forest structural attributes (stem abundance, tree size variation and stand basal area) and tree species richness to better understand drivers of latitudinal tree diversity patterns. Climate influences tree richness both directly, with more species in warm, moist, aseasonal climates and indirectly, with more species at higher stem abundance. These results imply direct limitation of species diversity by climatic stress and more rapid (co-)evolution and narrower niche partitioning in warm climates. They also support the idea that increased numbers of individuals associated with high primary productivity are partitioned to support a greater number of species.
Partitioning of soil phosphorus (P) pools has been proposed as a key mechanism maintaining plant diversity, but experimental support is lacking. Here, we provided different chemical forms of P to 15 tree species with contrasting root symbiotic relationships to investigate plant P acquisition in both tropical and subtropical forests. Both ectomycorrhizal (ECM) and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) trees responded positively to addition of inorganic P, but strikingly, ECM trees acquired more P from a complex organic form (phytic acid). Most ECM tree species and all AM tree species also showed some capacity to take up simple organic P (monophosphate). Mycorrhizal colonisation was negatively correlated with soil extractable P concentration, suggesting that mycorrhizal fungi may regulate organic P acquisition among tree species. Our results support the hypothesis that ECM and AM plants partition soil P sources, which may play an ecologically important role in promoting species coexistence in tropical and subtropical forests.
Topography is a key driver of tropical forest structure and composition, as it constrains local nutrient and hydraulic conditions within which trees grow. Yet, we do not fully understand how changes in forest physiognomy driven by topography impact other emergent properties of forests, such as their aboveground carbon density (ACD). Working in Borneo - at a site where 70-m-tall forests in alluvial valleys rapidly transition to stunted heath forests on nutrient-depleted dip slopes - we combined field data with airborne laser scanning and hyperspectral imaging to characterise how topography shapes the vertical structure, wood density, diversity and ACD of nearly 15 km2 of old-growth forest. We found that subtle differences in elevation - which control soil chemistry and hydrology - profoundly influenced the structure, composition and diversity of the canopy. Capturing these processes was critical to explaining landscape-scale heterogeneity in ACD, highlighting how emerging remote sensing technologies can provide new insights into long-standing ecological questions.
At the global scale, species diversity is known to strongly increase towards the equator for most taxa. According to theory, a higher resource specificity of consumers facilitates the coexistence of a larger number of species and has been suggested as an explanation for the latitudinal diversity gradient. However, only few studies support the predicted increase in specialisation or even showed opposite results. Surprisingly, analyses for detritivores are still missing. Therefore, we performed an analysis on the degree of trophic specialisation of dung beetles. We summarised 45 studies, covering the resource preferences of a total of 994503 individuals, to calculate the dung specificity in each study region. Our results highlighted a significant (4.3-fold) increase in the diversity of beetles attracted to vertebrate dung towards the equator. However, their resource specificity was low, unrelated to diversity and revealed a highly generalistic use of dung resources that remained similar along the latitudinal gradient.
The effect of sexual selection on species persistence remains unclear. The cost of bearing ornaments or armaments might increase extinction risk, but sexual selection can also enhance the spread of beneficial alleles and increase the removal of deleterious alleles, potentially reducing extinction risk. Here we investigate the effect of sexual selection on species persistence in a community of 34 species of dung beetles across a gradient of environmental disturbance ranging from old growth forest to oil palm plantation. Horns are sexually selected traits used in contests between males, and we find that both horn presence and relative size are strongly positively associated with species persistence and abundance in altered habitats. Testes mass, an indicator of post-copulatory selection, is, however, negatively linked with the abundance of species within the most disturbed habitats. This study represents the first evidence from a field system of a population-level benefit from pre-copulatory sexual selection.
Both niche and stochastic dispersal processes structure the extraordinary diversity of tropical plants, but determining their relative contributions has proven challenging. We address this question using airborne imaging spectroscopy to estimate canopy β-diversity for an extensive region of a Bornean rainforest and challenge these data with models incorporating niches and dispersal. We show that remotely sensed and field-derived estimates of pairwise dissimilarity in community composition are closely matched, proving the applicability of imaging spectroscopy to provide β-diversity data for entire landscapes of over 1000 ha containing contrasting forest types. Our model reproduces the empirical data well and shows that the ecological processes maintaining tropical forest diversity are scale dependent. Patterns of β-diversity are shaped by stochastic dispersal processes acting locally whilst environmental processes act over a wider range of scales.
Among the local processes that determine species diversity in ecological communities, fluctuation-dependent mechanisms that are mediated by temporal variability in the abundances of species populations have received significant attention. Higher temporal variability in the abundances of species populations can increase the strength of temporal niche partitioning but can also increase the risk of species extinctions, such that the net effect on species coexistence is not clear. We quantified this temporal population variability for tree species in 21 large forest plots and found much greater variability for higher latitude plots with fewer tree species. A fitted mechanistic model showed that among the forest plots, the net effect of temporal population variability on tree species coexistence was usually negative, but sometimes positive or negligible. Therefore, our results suggest that temporal variability in the abundances of species populations has no clear negative or positive contribution to the latitudinal gradient in tree species richness.