#03 2020

Straying into unfamiliar habitat reveals generality in ecological patterns: The mysterious case of the wet wildebeest

By Dr Dave Thompson, Biodiversity Scientist, SAEON Ndlovu Node

An article co-authored by SAEON research associate Deron Burkepile, SAEON biodiversity scientist Dave Thompson, SAEON postdocs Melissa Schmitt and Keenan Stears and University of California Santa Barbara collaborator Mary Donovan, published last week in Bioscience, argues that comparison across terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems leads to a more in-depth understanding of broad ecological patterns.

Although currently fashionable ‘big data’ meta-analyses are important for quantitative synthesis across ecosystems, detailed comparisons of natural history and species interactions also illuminate convergence among systems.

In the article the authors compare the ecology of superficially dissimilar African savannas and coral reefs (Figure 1) via shared characteristics including: (1) hyperdiverse guilds of large vertebrate herbivores and predators, (2) similar mechanisms driving positive feedback loops between herbivory and primary production, (3) similar roles of disturbance and herbivory in mediating ecosystem state, and (4) numerous smaller vertebrate and invertebrate species that underpin diversity and ecosystem processes.

Figure 1: Savannas and coral reefs – one terrestrial and the other aquatic, are superficially vastly dissimilar. Yet beneath the surface there are some striking similarities in the ecology of these productive and diverse ecosystems.

The resultant narrative is a guided tour of savanna and reef species which reveals striking similarities in functional relationships and ecosystem functioning despite the obvious differences and vastly different evolutionary histories of the two ecosystems. In short, the story outlines what can be considered the ecosystem analog of convergent evolution.

By comparing the natural history and ecology of these ecosystems the authors hope to facilitate others in finding their own comparative systems and encourage especially early-career scientists to explore ecosystems other than their primary focus.

If you don’t get yourself confused (Figure 2), immersing yourself in the ecology of an environment analogous to your ecosystem of choice can only enliven your career.

Figure 2: Scientists are encouraged to immerse themselves in comparative systems, but are cautioned that this can lead to initial disorientation and confusion (Photo: Richard Fynn)

Read the full article here.