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The devil is in the detail: theory for empirical model systems


Ottar N. Bjornstad [M]

Departments of Entomology and Biology

Pennsylvania State University

T: (814) 863-2983




Priyanga Amarasekare

Department of Ecology and Evolution

University of Chicago

T: (773) 834-7647


Endorsed by the ESA Theoretical Ecology Section


The foundational theory of ecology, epidemiology and behavioral ecology has been taught to every undergraduate and graduate student during the last half century. The underlying models have also motivated numerous historical and recent experiments and detailed observations on particular empirical systems. Encouragingly, the classic strategic models, many of which date back to the 1920s through 1960s, offer qualitative predictions that match data. However, many of the recent strides forwards in theoretical ecology have come from very specific case studies — involving clever experimentation and/or detailed field studies. This symposium will (i) explore the utility of the foundational models in understanding the ecological dynamics of specific systems and (ii) discuss how many recent conceptual and theoretical insights have reached by embracing the ‘idiosyncrasies’ of any particular system. The individual presentations detail these issues using case studies from behavior, biocontrol, epidemiology, and community ecology.

One sentence summary:

This session exposes how many recent advances in theoretical ecology have come through modifications of classical models to be applicable to detailed experimental or observational data.


The nine confirmed speakers have all contributed substantially to recent advances in theoretical ecology. They have done so by extending standard strategic models or developed new models to be applicable to detailed experimental or observational data. To a varying degree classic theory provides qualitative insights, however a quantitative fit usually require consideration of some odd detail that one may a priori expect to be inconsequential. This symposium will illustrate this fascinating aspect of ecological theory through and overview (Bjornstad/Amarasekare) followed by seven 15 minutes case studies spanning behavioral ecology (Alonso), epidemiology (Grenfell/Gog), population dynamics (McCauley/Nelson), Biocontrol (Murdoc/Briggs, Amaresekare) and competition / community dynamics (Bolker/Seabloom, Purves).

Confirmed speaker and title list and overall schedule

 The Organized Oral Session will constitute 8 15 minutes presentations. Each presentation will be followed by 5 minutes for discussions. There will be a 10 minute coffee break after the first 4 talks. Total length: 2 hours and 50 minutes.

1. BJORNSTAD, O.N 1. [C] AND AMARASEKARE, P 2. 1. Pennsylvania State Univ, 2. University of California Los Angeles. The devil is in the detail: theory for empirical model systems. (20)

2. ALONSO, S [C] Yale University. Understanding conflict and cooperation within and between the sexes in the Mediterranean wrasse, Symphodus ocellatus. (20)

3. MCCAULEY, E 1. [C] AND W. NELSON 2. 1. University of Alberta, Calgary, 2. University of Alberta, Edmonton. Developing and testing strategic models for structured populations: Daphnia as an exemplar. (20)

4. GRENFELL, B 1. [C] AND J. GOG 2. 1. Pennsylvania State Univ, 2. University of Cambridge. Mechanism and generality in infectious disease dynamics. (20)


5. MURDOCH, W.W 1. [C] AND C. BRIGGS 1. UC Santa Barbara, 2. UC Berkeley. Red scale and Aphytis: Simple models, complex models, and experiments. (20)

6. AMARASEKARE, P. [C] University of California Los Angeles. Trade-offs, temporal variation and species coexistence in multi-trophic communities. (20)

7. BOLKER, B 1. [C] AND E. SEABLOOM 2. 1. University of Florida, 2. Oregon State University. Spatial patterns and spatial community dynamics in California grasslands. (20)

8. PURVES, D. [C] Princeton University. Parameterized individual-based models of US forests: justification for, or invalidation of, traditional ecological theory? (20)