Eco-evolutionary Dynamics in a Changing World

11 - 15 February 2013

Venue: Lorentz Center@Oort

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Aims and brief description

This workshop will bring together a select group of 40 researchers working at the interface of ecology and evolution, from both theoretical and empirical backgrounds, to advance our understanding of eco-evolutionary dynamics. Key questions in population biology and life history evolution require careful consideration of interactions and feedbacks between ecological and evolutionary processes. The theoretical underpinning of such linkages stretch right back to the early days of the Modern Synthesis but empirical work has arguably lagged far behind, hampering our ability to predict how populations and species will respond to rapid environmental change. The goals of the workshop are to synthesize recent conceptual and methodological developments, to foster new ideas and collaborations on confronting eco-evolutionary models with data, and to explore how eco-evolutionary approaches can provide general insights and specific predictions regarding species persistence and range dynamics in changing environments.

Detailed description of workshop

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. Thus, ecological processes shape evolutionary trajectories, but the influence of evolutionary processes on ecological patterns could be safely ignored: evolution was deemed simply not fast enough to matter. In recent decades it has become clear that microevolution can in fact be rapid and amenable to study on human timescales, just like ecological processes. This has opened up the exciting possibility that evolution ‘in action’ dynamically affects ecology, and vice versa. Questions regarding their interplay are now being reformulated in more quantitative terms, e.g. over what timescales, spatial scales, and levels of biological organization are reciprocal influences between ecology and evolution most substantial?

These issues are of more than academic interest: understanding how species persist in the face of environmental change, the most pervasive and potentially insidious of which is climate change, has become an issue of applied importance with broad socio-economic ramifications. 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. At the same time, many emerging invasive species and infectious diseases display evidence of rapid adaptation, while climate change might exacerbate their ecological and epidemiological effects.  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.

With this backdrop in mind, our Lorentz Centre workshop will focus on eco-evolutionary dynamics and species persistence in changing environments. We have three major goals:

1) to synthesize recent conceptual developments at the interface between population ecology and evolutionary biology, by bringing together top researchers from both fields with a specific interest in eco-evolutionary dynamics

2) to bring together theoreticians and empiricists to discuss how best to confront theoretical models of eco-evolutionary dynamics (of which there are now many) with real data and how to interpret the results

3) to explore how eco-evolutionary models can be used effectively to understand how species persist in changing environments, in particular changing climates.

As often the case in a newly developing field, empirical work on eco-evolutionary dynamics is lagging far behind theoretical insights. The stage is therefore set for the models to be confronted with real data, but empiricists face a bewildering array of techniques and frameworks, the pros and cons of which for specific research questions are not always obvious. By synthesizing recent theoretical developments in stochastic demography and spatial eco-evolutionary dynamics, we hope that the workshop will clarify which techniques are most appropriate for which questions, and inspire empiricists to apply them in their chosen study organisms. Likewise, we expect that by highlighting insights from recent empirical studies, theoreticians will be inspired to further refine their models in ways that reflect biological realism. The workshop will be considered a success if it facilitates a constructive dialogue and exchange of ideas among top researchers from both theoretical and empirical backgrounds (as well as ecological and evolutionary backgrounds), ultimately culminating in a clear ‘road map’ for future research, new insights, and new collaborations that guide the field in the right direction.

From an applied perspective, the workshop will emphasize climate change as a universal environmental perturbation with major ecological and evolutionary consequences, but other types of environmental change (e.g. habitat fragmentation, species introductions) will also be considered. For most species of conservation concern, the types and amount of data required to parameterize eco-evolutionary models are simply not available. What is urgently needed, therefore, is the identification of general mechanisms and simple rules-of-thumb for how climate change might affect species with different life history characteristics, ecological requirements, or spatial/meta-population structuring. There are major challenges involved in linking climate models to biological models, for example related to the often different spatial and temporal scales at which climate and biological processes play out, and the need to correctly account for stochasticity in both. These and other issues will be discussed at the workshop.

A Lorentz workshop offers an ideal forum to stimulate future research in this field. A workshop is particularly conducive to this goal because it offers time, flexibility, and intensity - prerequisites of focused intellectual work that cannot be offered at a conference. Further, while many scientific conferences focus on a single discipline or a single study group (e.g. birds, plants etc.), the ultimate goal of this workshop is to bring together researchers with different areas of expertise and working on different study systems. This facilitates the goal of obtaining general insights into eco-evolutionary mechanisms in species with different life histories and ecologies.  The workshop will also reach out to junior researchers who can bring in creative ideas, open minds for integration, and innovative study methods. We will make room for substantial contributions of junior researchers and ample opportunity to interact with senior researchers from their own and other fields. Aside from a small number of presentations intended to provide a common starting ground, most of the time is dedicated to free-ranging discussions and open formats of working teams.


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