Ecology branches into the tree of life

An August 2012 supplementary issue of Ecology explores the interface of ecology and phylogenetics. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Lebensbaum (Tree of Life): Detail from Gustav Klimt’s 1910/11 drawing for the immense dining room frieze at Stoclet Palace, in Brussels. Watercolor and pencil. Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna. NATURALISTS of the late 19th century tended to holistic interpretations of the natural environment and its evolutionary history.  In the decades after Darwin, the new understanding of the relatedness of organisms to each other mixed indiscriminately with the study of relationships of organisms  to their living and physical environments. Theories of natural selection and inheritance sprang from observations of communities of animals, plants and microorganisms – and, in turn, informed ideas of how communities may have been shaped by the climate and landscapes of their earthly residence. “Ecology drives evolution, evolution drives ecology, that’s how Darwin saw the world,” said University of Minnesota ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares. But it is possible to zoom in on one viewpoint, to focus only on the interactions of living organisms and their environment, or only on the history of life, the derivation of species from common ancestors, and their adaptations to environmental pressures. That is what biological science did for much of the 20th century. “We partitioned the processes we were looking at into more tractable components. There are benefits to doing that, but at the expense of understanding how ecological and evolutionary processes reinforce each other.” Cavender-Bares is chief editor of a supplementary issue of ESA’s journal Ecology dedicated to bridging that gap in methodology and perspective. It showcases work at the interface of ecology and phylogenetics, a field of biology that works to infer the evolutionary history of relationships among organisms. “Integrating Ecology and Phylogenetics” went online in August, and is open access. “If you start with Darwin — always a good place to start! — natural selection is fundamentally an ecological process,” said David Ackerly, one of Cavender-Bares’ co-editors for the supplementary issue. “Chapter 3 of the On the Origin of Species [1859] is really a textbook in ecology.” “As ecology became a more quantitative science, it was just more tractable not to have to consider all of evolutionary history. But it’s become tractable again,” said Cavender-Bares. She and co-editors Ackerly and Kenneth Kozak pushed forward the supplementary issue not only to showcase available technology, but to make the case for incorporating phylogenetic research questions and concepts into ecological studies. “Ecologists are thinking about history more, thinking about contingency and context, and not seeing ecological systems so much as systems in equilibrium,” said Ackerly. He trained in ecology as a graduate...

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