Eco-evolutionary dynamics across scales

Eco-evolutionary dynamics are mechanisms in nature that occur when ecological and evolutionary processes interact. For instance, when climate change decreases the duration of the snow cover in the mountains, white hares become more visible, and brown hares may become better than white hares in escaping the attention of predators such as foxes and white-tailed eagles. If so, then predation by fox and eagle may strongly reduce the numbers of white hares. Since coat colour and the ability to become white in winter is heritable, the population of hares may evolve towards a population with a higher proportion of brown individuals. An ecological process (= predation) may thus trigger evolutionary change (= a change in coat colour across generations). However, after some generations, the white hares may become so rare that foxes have to switch to other prey species – small rodents such as voles and lemmings. An evolutionary process (= natural selection on coat colour in hares) may thus also cause ecological change (= a change in the species composition of small rodents).

Darwin’s finches, such as this juvenile medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis), have to survive the harsh conditions of life on the Galápagos islands. Picture: Joost Raeymaekers.

These and other examples of eco-evolutionary dynamics have become essential to understanding patterns of biodiversity and the functioning of biological communities and ecosystems. However, it remains a challenge to understand the importance of eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature. Eco-evolutionary dynamics are thus more than ever the topic of biological research. At Nord University, for instance, we investigate eco-evolutionary dynamics in ground finches of the genus Geospiza, the seed-eating Darwin’s finches of the Galápagos (read more here). We hope to test if natural selection on finch beaks (= evolution) can deplete certain seed types, and thereby change the species composition of the plant community (= ecology).

Furthermore, together with Franziska Brunner (University of Liverpool), Jacques Deere and Martijn Egas (University of Amsterdam), and Christophe Eizaguirre (Queen Mary University of London), we have recently collected a set of reviews, perspectives and empirical papers investigating the context‐dependent nature of eco‐evolutionary dynamics. The various contributions (10 articles and an editorial) propose new ways to understanding increasingly complex biological systems. The articles were merged into a special feature “Eco‐Evolutionary Dynamics across Scales”, and were published as a cross‐project between two journals, Functional Ecology and the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Franziska Brunner, Jacques Deere, Martijn Egas, Christophe Eizaguirre & Joost Raeymaekers (2019). The diversity of eco-evolutionary dynamics: comparing the feedbacks between ecology and evolution across scales. Functional Ecology 33, 7-12.

The various contributions can be found here.