Eco-evolutionary dynamics of living systems: Applications

Predicting how living systems respond to changing conditions is difficult, as such responses are often at odds with human intuition. Evolution and Ecology Program (EEP) research contributed to a mounting body of literature showing that eco-evolutionary dynamics can potentially exacerbate the worldwide biodiversity crises by causing secondary species extinctions.

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EEP research demonstrated that even optimizing selection – generally believed by experts to help species survive environmental changes – can have the diametrically opposite effect of causing extinctions [1]. A complementary study showed that the seemingly cooperative process of conspecifics aggregating in groups to jointly overcome environmental challenges can spiral out of control and cause runaway evolution that eventually results in extinction [2].

Under the right conditions, eco-evolutionary dynamics help mitigate the impacts of environmental change and increase the global species pool through processes of diversification and speciation. Several studies in 2013 aimed to identify such conditions.

  • A comprehensive taxonomy of the eco-evolutionary processes underlying adaptive speciation, identifying a previously overlooked mechanism through which biodiversity can rise [3].
  • Two studies [4] [5] respectively reviewed the roles of genetics and hybridization in speciation, identifying lacunas in understanding as well as promising directions for future research.
  • Addressing one such lacuna, scientists analyzed (Figure 1) how spatial structure can crucially facilitate diversification and speciation [6] [7]. 
  • A study was conducted of the potential of a single gene for inducing speciation and derived conditions that favor recessive and dominant alleles [8].
  • An investigation of diversification in predator-prey systems confirmed the widely held belief that predation can induce diversification of prey. Furthermore, the study related the resultant diversification rates to interspecific competition in the prey and revealed an alternating pattern of predator-prey diversification [9].
    Figure 1

    Figure 1. A realistic eco-physiological model is used to uncover the evolutionary history of a pair of coregonid fishes in Lake Stechlin, Germany. Speciation of a single ancestor gives rise to two new species adapted to different temperatures.

EEP’s research further elucidated how individual behavior and individual traits affect the eco-evolutionary dynamics of ecological populations and communities.

  • It was shown how increased or decreased movement rates in response to the presence of a prey or predator influence the demographic stability of populations [10].
  • Researchers demonstrated how the timing of species invasion and the number of invading individuals can be of critical importance in determining whether such an invasion succeeds [11].
  • A description was provided of how the degree of phenotypic plasticity is evolutionarily destined to change over the lifespan of individuals, which is likely to have as yet unprobed implications for population dynamics [12].
  • There was an investigation into the evolution of resource specialization and unexpectedly discovered that changes in resource use can induce cycling in population abundances, and even cause population extinctions [13].
  • Finally, scientists investigated the consequences of predators switching between multiple prey species and thus derived as an approximation an empirically observed power-law relationship between ratios of prey abundance and prey intake [14]. As part of this work, a new generalized functional response for predators switching between multiple prey species was developed, which is important for expanding the range of eco-evolutionary community dynamics that can be modeled with contemporary methods.


[1] Parvinen K & Dieckmann U (2013). Self-extinction through optimizing selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology 333: 1–9.
[2] Nonaka E, Parvinen K & Brännström Å (2013). Evolutionary suicide as a consequence of runaway selection for greater aggregation tendency. Journal of Theoretical Biology 317: 96–104.
[3] Rettelbach A, Kopp M, Dieckmann U & Hermisson J (2013). Three modes of adaptive speciation in spatially structured populations. American Naturalist 182: E215–E234.
[4] Abbott R, Albach D, Ansell S, Arntzen JW, Baird SJE, Bierne N, Boughman JW, Brelsford A, Buerkle CA, Buggs R, Butlin RK, Dieckmann U, Eroukhmanoff F, Grill A, Cahan SH, Hermansen JS, Hewitt G, Hudson AG, Jiggins C, Jones J, Keller B, Marczewski T, Mallet J, Martinez-Rodriguez P, Most M, Mullen S, Nichols R, Nolte AW, Parisod C, Pfennig K, Rice AM, Ritchie MG, Seifert B, Smadja CM, Stelkens R, Szymura JM, Vainola R, Wolf JBW & Zinner D (2013). Hybridization and speciation. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 26: 229–246.
[5] Seehausen O, Butlin RK, Keller I, Wagner C, Boughman J, Hohenlohe P, Peichel C, Saetre GP, Bank C, Brännström Å, Brelsford A, Clarkson C, Eroukhmanoff F, Feder JL, Fischer MC, Foote AD, Franchini P, Jiggins CD, Jones FC, Lindholm AK, Lucek K, Maan ME, Marques DA, Martin SH, Matthews B, Meier JI, Möst M, Nachman MW, Nonaka E, Peichel CL, Rennison DJ, Schwarzer J, Wagner CE, Watson ET, Westram AM & Widmer A (2014). Genomics and the origin of species. Nature Review Genetics 15: 176–192.
[6] Haller BC, Mazzucco R & Dieckmann U (2013). Evolutionary branching in complex landscapes. American Naturalist 182: E127–E141.
[7] Ohlberger J, Brännström Å & Dieckmann U (2013). Adaptive phenotypic diversification along a temperature-depth gradient. American Naturalist 182: 359–373.
[8] Yamamichi M & Sasaki A (2013). Single-gene speciation with pleiotropy: Effects of allele dominance population size and delayed inheritance. Evolution 67: 2011–2023.
[9] Landi P, Dercole F & Rinaldi S (2013). Branching scenarios in eco-evolutionary prey-predator models. SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics 73: 1634–1658.
[10] Sjödin H, Brännström Å, Söderquist M & Englund G (2014). Population-level consequences of heterospecific density-dependent movements in predator-prey systems. Journal of Theoretical Biology 342: 93–106.
[11] Yamamichi M, Yoshida T & Sasaki A (2014). Timing and propagule size of invasion determine its success by a time-varying threshold of demographic regime shift. Ecology, in press. doi: 10.1890/13-1527.1.
[12] Fischer B, van Doorn GS, Dieckmann U & Taborsky B (2014). The evolution of age-dependent plasticity. American Naturalist 183: 108–125.
[13] Nurmi T & Parvinen K (2013). Evolution of specialization under non-equilibrium population dynamics. Journal of Theoretical Biology 321: 63–77.
[14] van Leeuwen E, Brännström Å, Jansen VAA, Dieckmann U & Rossberg AG (2013). A generalized functional response for predators that switch between multiple prey species. Journal of Theoretical Biology 328: 89–98.

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Last edited: 22 May 2014


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