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News Release 12-146

Tale of Two Scientific Fields--Ecology and Phylogenetics--Offers New Views of Earth's Biodiversity

Scientists report new look at 'patterns in nature' in special issue of journal Ecology

August 3, 2012

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Patterns in nature are in everything from ocean currents to a flower's petal.

Scientists are taking a new look at Earth patterns, studying the biodiversity of yard plants in the U.S. and that of desert mammals in Israel, studying where flowers and bees live on the Tibetan plateau and how willow trees in America's Midwest make use of water.

They're finding that ecology, the study of relationships between living organisms and their environment, and phylogenetics, research on evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms, are inextricably intertwined.

Results of this tale of two fields are highlighted in a special, August 2012 issue of the journal Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Most of the results reported are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The issue will be released at the annual ESA meeting, held this year from August 5-10 in Portland, Ore.

Melding information from ecology and phylogenetics allows scientists to understand why plants and animals are distributed in certain patterns across landscapes, how these species adapt to changing environments across evolutionary time--and where their populations may be faltering.

"To understand the here and now, ecologists need more knowledge of the past," says Saran Twombly, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.  "Incorporating evolutionary history and phylogenies into studies of community ecology is revealing complex feedbacks between ecological and evolutionary processes."

Maureen Kearney, also a program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology adds, "Recent studies have demonstrated that species' evolutionary histories can have profound effects on the contemporary structure and composition of ecological communities."

In the face of rapid changes in Earth's biota, understanding the evolutionary processes that drive patterns of species diversity and coexistence in ecosystems has never been more pressing, write co-editors Jeannine Cavender-Bares of the University of Minnesota, David Ackerly of the University of California at Berkeley and Kenneth Kozak of the University of Minnesota.

"As human domination of our planet accelerates," says Cavender-Bares, "our best hope for restoring and sustaining the ‘environmental services' of the biological world is to understand how organisms assemble, persist and coexist in ecosystems across the globe."

Papers in the volume address subjects such as the vanishingly rare oak savanna ecosystem of U.S. northern tier states, revealing an ancient footprint of history on the savanna as well as how it has fared in a 40-year fire experiment.

Other results cover the influence of ecological and evolutionary factors on hummingbird populations; habitat specialization in willow tree communities; growth strategies in tropical tree lineages and their implications for biodiversity in the Amazon region; and the characteristics of common urban plants.

"The studies in this issue show that knowledge of how organisms evolve reveals new insights into the ecology and persistence of species," says Cavender-Bares.

Plants in urban yards, for example, are more closely related to each other--and live shorter lives--than do plants in rural areas, found Cavender-Bares and colleagues.

Their study compared plant diversity in private urban yards in the U.S. Midwest with that in the rural NSF Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research site in Minnesota.

Cities are growing faster and faster, with unexpected effects, says Sonja Knapp of the Hemholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany, lead author of the paper reporting the results.

"Understanding how urban gardening affects biodiversity is increasingly important," says Cavender-Bares.  "Urbanites should consider maintaining yards with a higher number of species."

In the special issue, researchers also look at topics such as what determines the number of coexisting species in local and regional communities of salamanders. Kenneth Kozak of the University of Minnesota and John Wiens of Stony Brook University report that variation in the amount of time salamanders occupy different climate zones is the primary factor.

Evolution of an herbaceous flower called goldfields, and how that led to the plant's affinity for certain habitats, is the subject of a paper by David Ackerly, Nancy Emery of Purdue University and colleagues. Emery is the paper's lead author.

In all, 17 papers combine ecology and phylogenetics to offer new answers to long-standing questions about the patterns and processes of biodiversity on Planet Earth.

Integrating Ecology and Phylogenetics
A special issue of the journal Ecology

Integrating ecology and phylogenetics: the footprint of history in modern-day communities
Jeannine Cavender-Bares, David D. Ackerly, Kenneth H. Kozak, Co-Editors

Synthesizing phylogenetic knowledge for ecological research
Jeremy M. Beaulieu, Richard H. Ree, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Nicholas Deacon, George D. Weiblen, and Michael J. Donoghue

Assessing the effects of spatial contingency and environmental filtering on metacommunity phylogenetics
Pedro R. Peres-Neto, Mathew A. Leibold and Stephane Dray

Phylogenetic species-area curves
Matthew R. Helmus and Anthony R. Ives

Phylogenetic tree shape as a predictor of niche segregation
Jonathan Davies, Natalie Cooper, Jose Alexandre Felizola Diniz Filho, Gavin H. Thomas, Shai Meiri

Shocks to the system: Community assembly of the oak savanna in a 40-year fire frequency experiment
Jeannine Cavender-Bares and Peter B. Reich

Demographic drivers of successional changes in phylogenetic structure across life history stages in plant communities
Natalia Norden, Susan Letcher, Vanessa Boukili, Nathan Swenson, and Robin Chazdon

Phylogenetic and functional characteristics of household yard floras and their changes along an urbanization gradient
Sonja Knapp, Lucy Dinsmore, Cinzia Fissore, Sarah Hobbie, Ina Jakobsdottir, Jens Kattge, Jennifer King, Stefan Klotz, Daniel C. Laughlin, Joseph P. McFadden, and Jeannine Cavender-Bares

Untangling the influence of ecological and evolutionary factors on trait variation across hummingbird assemblages
Catherine H. Graham, Juan L. Parra, Boris A. Tinoco, F. Gary Stiles, Jim A. McGuire

Phylogenetic and functional alpha and beta diversity in temperate and tropical tree communities
Nathan G. Swenson, David L. Erickson, Xiangcheng Mi, Norman A. Bourg, Jimena Montana-Forero, Xuejun Ge, Robert Howe, Jeffrey K. Lake, Xiaojuan Liu, Keping Ma, Nancai Pei, Jill Thompson, Maria Uriarte, Amy Wolf, S. Joseph Wright, Wanhu Ye, Jinlong Zhang, Jess K. Zimmerman and W. John Kress

Phylogenetic signal and phenotypic plasticity in traits under variable competitive regimes
Jean H. Burns and Sharon Y. Strauss

Habitat specialization and the role of trait lability in structuring hyper-diverse willow communities
Jessica Savage and Jeannine Cavender-Bares

Niche evolution and habitat specialization in Lasthenia
Nancy C. Emery, Elisabeth J. Forrestel, Ginger Jui, Michael Park, Bruce G. Baldwin and David D. Ackerly

Phylogeny, ecology and the origins of climate-richness relationships
Kenneth H. Kozak and John J. Wiens

Floral diversity and community structure in Pedicularis (Orobanchaceae)
Deren A. R. Eaton, Charles B. Fenster, Joe Hereford, Shuang-Quan Huang, Richard H. Ree

Herbivory, growth strategies and habitat specialization in four tropical tree lineages: Implications for Amazonian Beta-Diversity
Greg P.A Lamarre, Christopher Baraloto, Claire Fortunel, Nallarett Davila, Italo Mesones, Julio Grandez Rios, Marcos Rios, Elvis Valderrama, Paul Fine

Predicting the impact of tropical rain forest conversion on insect herbivore abundance from plant traits and phylogeny
Timothy J. S. Whitfeld, Vojtech Novotny, Scott E. Miller, Jan Hrcek, Petr Klimes, and George D. Weiblen

Phylogenetic diversity promotes ecosystem stability
Marc W. Cadotte, Russell Dinnage, David Tilman


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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