Posted 21 May
Dr Simon Segar
Harper Adams University Lecturer in Entomology Dr Simon Segar, along with several leading ecologists, has created a cutting-edge review of the role of evolution in ecological networks which has been published in one of the top ecology journals.
In the piece, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the authors draw on years of experience studying networks in some of the most ecologically diverse locations on the planet, including the rainforests of Panama, Cameroon and the mountains of Papua New Guinea to present a forward-looking overview of the field.
All organisms live in interaction webs called ecological networks; none are an island. These networks summarise both mutually beneficial interactions, such as pollination and seed dispersal, and antagonistic ones like herbivory. They include many of the species upon which we rely on for important ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control and nutrient cycling.
Dr Segar said: “Research into how these networks vary in structure and stability over time and space represents one of the central pillars of ecology because healthy ecosystems require functional networks. As famously stated by Bob Dillon, the times they are a-changin', and we need to keep up!
“An ongoing challenge has been to understand how evolution has shaped the trajectories of these interacting species. For example, certain plants and pollinators are highly coevolved and inter-reliant; what are the implications when one partner goes extinct? Can we predict the cascading influence of extinction as changes ripple out across an interconnected web?
“Armed with knowledge about how species are related (phylogenetic trees) and how conserved these interactions are, we can, for example, better understand how another species may fill the gap. Understanding how species have evolved, and may yet evolve, in response to the challenges of network living, will provide vital clues as the composition of the world’s ecosystems is altered under ongoing human induced change.
“Major areas of research include finding out what makes some species able to invade vulnerable and degraded ecosystems and how to control them when they arrive; knowledge of their evolutionary history will be essential. This review offers a synthetic framework for studying some of these ‘grand challenges’ in ecology.”