Consider the case of the three-spine stickleback. These tiny fish that
thrive in oceans and in fresh water might appear to be the same, yet
ecologists are finding that they are actually a diverse collection of
very specialized individuals.
Understanding the ecological causes and consequences of such
ecological variation is the goal of a group of scientists meeting at the
National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS)
at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, July 27-29.
Population and Community Ecology Consequences of Intraspecific Niche
Variation is the topic of a NIMBioS Working Group comprised of
biologists and mathematicians from universities and other academic
institutions across North America and Europe.
Traditionally, ecological theory has treated a population as a
homogeneous set of individuals, implicitly assuming that individuals
within a population are ecologically interchangeable, but individuals
are often quite diverse, said Daniel Bolnick, Working Group co-organizer
and assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin.
"Very little is known about how niche variation affects the
ecological dynamics of a species or a community, and yet it is important
to understand it in order to make accurate predictions about a
population," he said.
In order to make effective management decisions, for example,
conservation biologists need to know under what conditions a predator
and its prey can co-exist together. "The problem is that a lot of the
ecological models say that predator/prey populations are unstable, and
yet we know that they can co-exist. So, what we want to know is how does
variation in a population change what we know about population
dynamics," Bolnick said.
One of the unique aspects of the Working Group is its
interdisciplinary approach involving both biologists and mathematicians
to studying the issue.
"By establishing connections between these usually separate fields,
we hope to initiate a new field of mathematical ecology that melds
genetics, evolution, and dynamic foraging behavior into ecological
models that will determine how intraspecific variation affects
ecological dynamics and community structure," Bolnick said.
"At present, mathematical theory is our only tool to determine the
ecological effects of niche variation and make recommendations for
empiricists," Bolnick added.