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Eco-evolutionary Dynamics in a Changing World
Scientific background and motivation
Until recently, ecologists and evolutionary biologists mostly believed that the arrows linking their disciplines went one way: from ecology to evolution – at least on timescales of tens to hundreds of years. In recent decades, however, it has become clear that microevolution can in fact be rapid and amenable to study on human timescales, opening up the exciting possibility that evolution ‘in action’ dynamically affects ecology, and vice versa. This is of more than academic interest: a broad consensus is emerging that evolutionary processes cannot be ignored from a conservation perspective, given that the inability to adapt fast enough to environmental change often lies at the root of extinction, and hence biodiversity loss. Rapid evolution is also known to occur in invasive species and infectious diseases. Deeper understanding of eco-evolutionary mechanisms underpinning population dynamics and range shifts could improve our ability to both conserve the species we care about and control those deemed problematic.
Our Lorentz workshop thus aimed to (1) synthesize recent conceptual developments at the interface between ecology and evolutionary biology, (2) bring together theoreticians and empiricists working at this interface and (3) explore how an eco-evolutionary approach can help us better understand how species persist in changing environments.
The Lorentz workshop was attended by 40 researchers from 11 countries, representing a good mix of theoreticians and empiricists as well as of “old wisdom” and “young and plastic brains”. The first day was dedicated to getting to know each other and to introducing fundamental issues. Andrew Hendry from McGill University, Montreal, provided a stimulating opening talk, which gave a broad overview of how contemporary evolution shapes ecological dynamics at the population, community, and ecosystem levels. In the afternoon, Jon Bridle from Bristol University spoke about theoretical and empirical studies of evolution along smooth and patchy ecological gradients. This was followed by a plenary discussion, where the key questions and problems faced by this fledgling field were scoped. The second day delved deeper into conceptual issues, with presentations by Peter van Tienderen (University of Amsterdam) and Hanna Kokko (Australian National University). There were break-out sessions in the morning and afternoon, where small groups gathered to discuss specific topics. These sessions proved to be a fertile ground for discussion, where the real progress was made in moving the field forward. One emerging discussion point was that ‘eco-evolutionary dynamics’ can be defined in strict or broad terms, and opinions were split as to how broad the definition ought to be. This issue was gradually resolved as the workshop unfolded, through multiple discussions during the break-outs, in the plenary sessions, and at the various social events in the evenings.
The third day was dedicated to the topic of ‘detecting signatures of eco-evolutionary dynamics’. Talks by Nelson Hairston Jnr (Cornell University) and Fannie Pelletier (University of Sherbrooke) outlined the challenges involved in empirically detecting such signatures in laboratory microcosm experiments and using observational data from wild populations. One key realization was that eco-evolutionary dynamics can often by cryptic, e.g. where the density of the evolving organism remains unchanged despite on-going underlying genetic change, making prediction difficult. A diverse range of topics were discussed in break-out sessions in the morning and afternoon. On the fourth day, the focus was on applying eco-evolutionary theory to understand species’ responses to environmental change. Richard Gomulkiewicz (Washington State University) provided a stimulating overview of theoretical models in the morning, while Luc de Meester (University of Leuven) talked about empirical work by him and others on evolution in meta-communities facing a range of human threats. Much discussion followed on the relative roles of evolution within species versus competition among species in determining community responses. During the morning and afternoon, the “Road Map Working Groups” met to discuss their visions for where to field should go next. On the last day, these Road Map Working Groups presented these ideas to everyone in a plenary session, followed by a final group discussion. The overall consensus was that although much more empirical was needed, this young field of study was in a healthy state and well positioned to mature and probably split into a series of related sub-disciplines, as often happens in science. It was also agreed that a special issue on eco-evolutionary dynamics in a suitable journal would provide a stimulus for encouraging more empirical work, and plans are currently underway to make this happen.
The format of a Lorentz workshop proved to be ideal for the goal of our workshop of bringing together researchers from different disciplines and from theoretical and empirical backgrounds. The unique mix of people facilitated direct interactions between many researchers working in parallel. The idea of being “a department” for a week and flexible schedules allowed for a wealth of one-on-one interactions, leading to much more fundamental discussions than would be possible at standard international meetings. In addition, during six sessions we broke up the attendance into small groups so that each participant, junior or senior, led a discussion on a topic of her or his own choice. This turned out to be a powerful stimulant of academic exchange. As a consequence, there was general consensus that the meeting has been exceptionally stimulating. In particular, it helped to paint a clearer picture of what the key outstanding questions in the field really are, and hence what the most profitable research directions for the future are. Many participants, particularly the juniors, commented that the workshop gave them a much broader perspective on the various strands of current research in eco-evolutionary dynamics and helped place their own work within this broader, integrative framework. Plans for future meetings were discussed, and it was clear that new collaborations would likely result from the workshop. Participants are also being asked to submit relevant electronic material that can be used as a resource based on the Lorentz Center website. Overall, we are confident that we have gained major impulses for the understanding of the intimately intertwined fields of ecology and evolution and the relevance of eco-evolutionary dynamics for understanding and predicting patterns of biodiversity loss in a changing world.
The workshop profited enormously from the wonderful set-up and thoughtful assistance offered at the Lorentz-Center. It would not have been possible without its financial support and we gratefully acknowledge this crucial help.