Assistant Professor, Biology
PhD, Univ of Tennessee, Knoxville, Ecology & Evol Biology (2003)
Ecological and evolutionary community assembly
I study how ecological communities assemble, with emphasis on historical contingency in community structure, ecosystem functioning, biological invasion and ecological restoration, using various methods (experimental, theoretical and comparative) and organisms (bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals) in collaboration with interdisciplinary colleagues.
Community structure often shows non-random relationships with the size, productivity, connectivity and other characteristics of localities. Using computer simulations and microbial experiments, I have found that these relationships depend on the history of community assembly, or the sequence and timing in which species join communities, at multiple spatial scales.
Recently, I am studying how historically derived variation in community structure affects the way ecosystems function. My current focus for this work is wood-decay fungi and their consumers. With New Zealand researchers, I am doing experiments to ask how assembly history interacts with top-down and bottom-up forces to alter fungal communities that drive nutrient cycling in ecosystems.
I am also interested in incorporating evolutionary diversification in community assembly theory, which has focused mainly on ecological, as opposed to evolutionary, dynamics. Our microbial experiments so far have shown that immigration history influences the extent of evolutionary diversification via ecological mechanisms such as competitive neutrality and indirect facilitation.
Although much of my work involves laboratory and theoretical methods, I maintain the same level of interest in conducting field research that addresses both fundamental questions and environmental issues such as biological invasion and ecological restoration. For example, I have been involved in a project on rat-induced community changes on New Zealand islands. Building on this effort, I am now working with collaborators to develop a project that will use numerous forest fragments created by lava flow in Hawaii. With this system, we seek to understand how the response of native plant and animal communities to non-native mammals varies with ecosystem size and landscape context.
The order of species arrival during community assembly can greatly affect species coexistence, but the strength of these effects, known as priority effects, appears highly variable across species and ecosystems. Furthermore, the causes of this variation remain unclear despite their fundamental importance in understanding species coexistence. Here, we show that one potential cause is environmental variability. In laboratory experiments using nectar-inhabiting microorganisms as a model system, we manipulated spatial and temporal variability of temperature, and examined consequences for priority effects. If species arrived sequentially, multiple species coexisted under variable temperature, but not under constant temperature. Temperature variability prevented extinction of late-arriving species that would have been excluded owing to priority effects if temperature had been constant. By contrast, if species arrived simultaneously, species coexisted under both variable and constant temperatures. We propose possible mechanisms underlying these results using a mathematical model that incorporates contrasting effects of microbial species on nectar pH and amino acids. Overall, our findings suggest that understanding consequences of priority effects for species coexistence requires explicit consideration of environmental variability.
View details for DOI 10.1098/rspb.2013.2637
View details for PubMedID 24430846
Multispecies mutualisms, such as the association between trees and ectomycorrhizal fungi, are often shaped by environmental context. Here, we explored the functional mechanisms underlying this environmental filtering. Using a single population of Pinus muricata (Bishop pine) growing along a strong edaphic gradient, we examined how environmental stress affected ectomycorrhizal fungi. The gradient spans c. 400 000 years of soil age, and reduced nutrient availability and increased water stress dwarf trees on older sites. Fungal community composition shifted with nutrient and water availability and with the stature of the P. muricata host trees. Not only did pygmy trees host a taxonomically different fungal subset as compared to nonpygmy trees, but associated fungal communities also differed in life history strategies: trees in more stressful conditions hosted fungi with more carbon-intensive foraging strategies. Our results indicate a link between environmental controls of host nutritional status and turnover in the ectomycorrhizal fungal community. The transition to more energy-intensive strategies under nutrient stress may allow for close recycling of recalcitrant nutrient pools within the root zone and facilitate transport of nutrients and water over long distances. These results highlight the value of life history data to understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of species distributions.
View details for DOI 10.1111/1574-6941.12265
View details for Web of Science ID 000332207200020
View details for PubMedID 24289145
The gut microflora of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, is receiving increasing attention as a potential determinant of the bees' health and their efficacy as pollinators. Studies have focused primarily on the microbial taxa that appear numerically dominant in the bee gut, with the assumption that the dominant status suggests their potential importance to the bees' health. However, numerically minor taxa might also influence the bees' efficacy as pollinators, particularly if they are not only present in the gut, but also capable of growing in floral nectar and altering its chemical properties. Nonetheless, it is not well understood whether honey bees have any feeding preference for or against nectar colonized by specific microbial species. To test whether bees exhibit a preference, we conducted a series of field experiments at an apiary using synthetic nectar inoculated with specific species of bacteria or yeast that had been isolated from the bee gut, but are considered minor components of the gut microflora. These species had also been found in floral nectar. Our results indicated that honey bees avoided nectar colonized by the bacteria Asaia astilbes, Erwinia tasmaniensis, and Lactobacillus kunkeei, whereas the yeast Metschnikowia reukaufii did not affect the feeding preference of the insects. Our results also indicated that avoidance of bacteria-colonized nectar was caused not by the presence of the bacteria per se, but by the chemical changes to nectar made by the bacteria. These findings suggest that gut microbes may not only affect the bees' health as symbionts, but that some of the microbes may possibly affect the efficacy of A. mellifera as pollinators by altering nectar chemistry and influencing their foraging behavior.
View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0086494
View details for PubMedID 24466119
The way species affect one another in ecological communities often depends on the order of species arrival. The magnitude of such historical contingency, known as priority effects, varies across species and environments, but this variation has proven difficult to predict, presenting a major challenge in understanding species interactions and consequences for community structure and function. Here, we argue that improved predictions can be achieved by decomposing species' niches into three components: overlap, impact and requirement. Based on classic theories of community assembly, three hypotheses that emphasise related, but distinct influences of the niche components are proposed: priority effects are stronger among species with higher resource use overlap; species that impact the environment to a greater extent exert stronger priority effects; and species whose growth rate is more sensitive to changes in the environment experience stronger priority effects. Using nectar-inhabiting microorganisms as a model system, we present evidence that these hypotheses complement the conventional hypothesis that focuses on the role of environmental harshness, and show that niches can be twice as predictive when separated into components. Taken together, our hypotheses provide a basis for developing a general framework within which the magnitude of historical contingency in species interactions can be predicted.
View details for DOI 10.1111/ele.12204
View details for Web of Science ID 000328315900013
Recent research has expanded our understanding of microbial community assembly. However, the field of community ecology is inaccessible to many microbial ecologists because of inconsistent and often confusing terminology as well as unnecessarily polarizing debates. Thus, we review recent literature on microbial community assembly, using the framework of Vellend (Q. Rev. Biol. 85:183-206, 2010) in an effort to synthesize and unify these contributions. We begin by discussing patterns in microbial biogeography and then describe four basic processes (diversification, dispersal, selection, and drift) that contribute to community assembly. We also discuss different combinations of these processes and where and when they may be most important for shaping microbial communities. The spatial and temporal scales of microbial community assembly are also discussed in relation to assembly processes. Throughout this review paper, we highlight differences between microbes and macroorganisms and generate hypotheses describing how these differences may be important for community assembly. We end by discussing the implications of microbial assembly processes for ecosystem function and biodiversity.
View details for DOI 10.1128/MMBR.00051-12
View details for Web of Science ID 000324164400002
View details for PubMedID 24006468
In the last two decades, the widespread application of genetic and genomic approaches has revealed a bacterial world astonishing in its ubiquity and diversity. This review examines how a growing knowledge of the vast range of animal-bacterial interactions, whether in shared ecosystems or intimate symbioses, is fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology. Specifically, we highlight recent technological and intellectual advances that have changed our thinking about five questions: how have bacteria facilitated the origin and evolution of animals; how do animals and bacteria affect each other's genomes; how does normal animal development depend on bacterial partners; how is homeostasis maintained between animals and their symbionts; and how can ecological approaches deepen our understanding of the multiple levels of animal-bacterial interaction. As answers to these fundamental questions emerge, all biologists will be challenged to broaden their appreciation of these interactions and to include investigations of the relationships between and among bacteria and their animal partners as we seek a better understanding of the natural world.
View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.1218525110
View details for Web of Science ID 000315841900016
View details for PubMedID 23391737
Mutualistic interactions are often subject to exploitation by species that are not directly involved in the mutualism. Understanding which organisms act as such 'third-party' species and how they do so is a major challenge in the current study of mutualistic interactions. Here, we show that even species that appear ecologically similar can have contrasting effects as third-party species. We experimentally compared the effects of nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeasts on the strength of a mutualism between a hummingbird-pollinated shrub, Mimulus aurantiacus, and its pollinators. We found that the common bacterium Gluconobacter sp., but not the common yeast Metschnikowia reukaufii, reduced pollination success, seed set and nectar consumption by pollinators, thereby weakening the plant-pollinator mutualism. We also found that the bacteria reduced nectar pH and total sugar concentration more greatly than the yeasts did and that the bacteria decreased glucose concentration and increased fructose concentration whereas the yeasts affected neither. These distinct changes to nectar chemistry may underlie the microbes' contrasting effects on the mutualism. Our results suggest that it is necessary to understand the determinants of microbial species composition in nectar and their differential modification of floral rewards to explain the mutual benefits that plants and pollinators gain from each other.
View details for DOI 10.1098/rspb.2012.2601
View details for PubMedID 23222453
The shift from cookbook to authentic research-based lab courses in undergraduate biology necessitates the need for evaluation and assessment of these novel courses. Although the biology education community has made progress in this area, it is important that we interpret the effectiveness of these courses with caution and remain mindful of inherent limitations to our study designs that may impact internal and external validity. The specific context of a research study can have a dramatic impact on the conclusions. We present a case study of our own three-year investigation of the impact of a research-based introductory lab course, highlighting how volunteer students, a lack of a comparison group, and small sample sizes can be limitations of a study design that can affect the interpretation of the effectiveness of a course.
View details for DOI 10.1128/jmbe.v14i2.609
View details for PubMedID 24358380
While several studies have shown that invasive plant effects on soil biota influence subsequent plant performance, corresponding studies on how invasive animals affect plants through influencing soil biota are lacking. This is despite the fact that invasive animals often indirectly alter the below-ground subsystem. We studied 18 offshore islands in northern New Zealand, half of which have been invaded by rats that are predators of seabirds and severely reduce their densities, and half of which remain non-invaded; invasion of rats thwarts seabird transfer of resources from ocean to land. We used soil from each island in a glasshouse experiment involving soil sterilization treatments to determine whether rat invasion indirectly influences plant growth through the abiotic pathway (by impairing seabird-driven inputs to soil) or the biotic pathway (by altering the soil community). Rat invasion greatly impaired plant growth but entirely through the abiotic pathway. Plant growth was unaffected by the soil community or its response to invasion, meaning that the responses of plants and soil biota to invasion are decoupled. Our results provide experimental evidence for the powerful indirect effects that predator-instigated cascades can exert on plant and ecosystem productivity, with implications for the restoration of island ecosystems by predator removal.
View details for DOI 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0201
View details for Web of Science ID 000306361700027
View details for PubMedID 22496079
Microfungi that inhabit floral nectar offer unique opportunities for the study of microbial distribution and the role that dispersal limitation may play in generating distribution patterns. Flowers are well-replicated habitat islands, among which the microbes disperse via pollinators. This metapopulation system allows for investigation of microbial distribution at multiple spatial scales. We examined the distribution of the yeast, Metschnikowia reukaufii, and other fungal species found in the floral nectar of the sticky monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus, a hummingbird-pollinated shrub, at a California site. We found that the frequency of nectar-inhabiting microfungi on a given host plant was not significantly correlated with light availability, nectar volume, or the percent cover of M. aurantiacus around the plant, but was significantly correlated with the location of the host plant and loosely correlated with the density of flowers on the plant. These results suggest that dispersal limitation caused by spatially nonrandom foraging by pollinators may be a primary factor driving the observed distribution pattern.
View details for DOI 10.1007/s00248-011-9975-8
View details for Web of Science ID 000306127300001
View details for PubMedID 22080257
Priority effects, in which the outcome of species interactions depends on the order of their arrival, are a key component of many models of community assembly. Yet, much remains unknown about how priority effects vary in strength among species in a community and what factors explain this variation. We experimented with a model natural community in laboratory microcosms that allowed us to quantify the strength of priority effects for most of the yeast species found in the floral nectar of a hummingbird-pollinated shrub at a biological preserve in northern California. We found that priority effects were widespread, with late-arriving species experiencing strong negative effects from early-arriving species. However, the magnitude of priority effects varied across species pairs. This variation was phylogenetically non-random, with priority effects stronger between closer relatives. Analysis of carbon and amino acid consumption profiles indicated that competition between closer relatives was more intense owing to higher ecological similarity, consistent with Darwin's naturalization hypothesis. These results suggest that phylogenetic relatedness between potential colonists may explain the strength of priority effects and, as a consequence, the degree to which community assembly is historically contingent.
View details for DOI 10.1098/rspb.2011.1230
View details for Web of Science ID 000299114100017
View details for PubMedID 21775330
Assembly history, or the order of species arrival, can have wide-ranging effects on species, communities and ecosystems. However, it remains unclear whether assembly history primarily affects individual species, with effects attenuating at the level of communities and ecosystems or, alternatively, has consistent effect sizes across increasing levels of ecological organisation. We address this question using a field-based manipulation of assembly history of wood-inhabiting fungi. The largest effect sizes were observed for the frequency of some individual species, and mean effect sizes were lower for community metrics of fungi immigrating from the regional species pool. There was little evidence, however, of attenuation in effect sizes at the ecosystem level (carbon, nitrogen, decomposition) in comparison to the species or community level. These results indicate that assembly history can have strong effects on ecosystem properties even under natural levels of environmental variability.
View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01722.x
View details for Web of Science ID 000298848200007
View details for PubMedID 22188588
The concept of alternative stable states has long been a dominant framework for studying the influence of historical contingency in community assembly. This concept focuses on stable states, yet many real communities are kept in a transient state by disturbance, and the utility of predictions for stable states in explaining transient states remains unclear. Using a simple model of plant community assembly, we show that the conditions under which historical contingency affects community assembly can differ greatly for stable versus transient states. Differences arise because the contribution of such factors as mortality rate, environmental heterogeneity and plant-soil feedback to historical contingency changes as community assembly proceeds. We also show that transient states can last for a long time relative to immigration rate and generation time. These results argue for a conceptual shift of focus from alternative stable states to alternative transient states for understanding historical contingency in community assembly.
View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01663.x
View details for Web of Science ID 000294917700001
View details for PubMedID 21790934
Classical approaches to food webs focus on patterns and processes occurring at the community level rather than at the broader ecosystem scale, and often ignore spatial aspects of the dynamics. However, recent research suggests that spatial processes influence both food web and ecosystem dynamics, and has led to the idea of 'metaecosystems'. However, these processes have been tackled separately by 'food web metacommunity' ecology, which focuses on the movement of traits, and 'landscape ecosystem' ecology, which focuses on the movement of materials among ecosystems. Here, we argue that this conceptual gap must be bridged to fully understand ecosystem dynamics because many natural cases demonstrate the existence of interactions between the movements of traits and materials. This unification of concepts can be achieved under the metaecosystem framework, and we present two models that highlight how this framework yields novel insights. We then discuss patches, limiting factors and spatial explicitness as key issues to advance metaecosystem theory. We point out future avenues for research on metaecosystem theory and their potential for application to biological conservation.
View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01588.x
View details for Web of Science ID 000287528600014
View details for PubMedID 21272182
During community assembly, species may accumulate not only by immigration, but also by in situ diversification. Diversification has intrigued biologists because its extent varies even among closely related lineages under similar ecological conditions. Recent research has suggested that some of this puzzling variation may be caused by stochastic differences in the history of immigration (relative timing and order of immigration by founding populations), indicating that immigration and diversification may affect community assembly interactively. However, the conditions under which immigration history affects diversification remain unclear. Here we propose the hypothesis that whether or not immigration history influences the extent of diversification depends on the founding populations' prior evolutionary history, using evidence from a bacterial experiment. To create genotypes with different evolutionary histories, replicate populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens were allowed to adapt to a novel environment for a short or long period of time (approximately 10 or 100 bacterial generations) with or without exploiters (viral parasites). Each evolved genotype was then introduced to a new habitat either before or after a standard competitor genotype. Most genotypes diversified to a greater extent when introduced before, rather than after, the competitor. However, introduction order did not affect the extent of diversification when the evolved genotype had previously adapted to the environment for a long period of time without exploiters. Diversification of these populations was low regardless of introduction order. These results suggest that the importance of immigration history in diversification can be predicted by the immigrants' evolutionary past. The hypothesis proposed here may be generally applicable in both micro- and macro-organisms.
View details for DOI 10.3389/fmicb.2011.00273
View details for PubMedID 22291685
Community assembly history is increasingly recognized as a fundamental determinant of community structure. However, little is known as to how assembly history may affect ecosystem functioning via its effect on community structure. Using wood-decaying fungi as a model system, we provide experimental evidence that large differences in ecosystem functioning can be caused by small differences in species immigration history during community assembly. Direct manipulation of early immigration history resulted in three-fold differences in fungal species richness and composition and, as a consequence, differences of the same magnitude in the rate of decomposition and carbon release from wood. These effects - which were attributable to the history-dependent outcome of competitive and facilitative interactions - were significant across a range of nitrogen availabilities observed in natural forests. Our results highlight the importance of considering assembly history in explaining ecosystem functioning.
View details for DOI 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01465.x
View details for Web of Science ID 000277867100002
View details for PubMedID 20412280
A growing body of evidence shows that aboveground and belowground communities and processes are intrinsically linked, and that feedbacks between these subsystems have important implications for community structure and ecosystem functioning. Almost all studies on this topic have been carried out from an empirical perspective and in specific ecological settings or contexts. Belowground interactions operate at different spatial and temporal scales. Due to the relatively low mobility and high survival of organisms in the soil, plants have longer lasting legacy effects belowground than aboveground. Our current challenge is to understand how aboveground-belowground biotic interactions operate across spatial and temporal scales, and how they depend on, as well as influence, the abiotic environment. Because empirical capacities are too limited to explore all possible combinations of interactions and environmental settings, we explore where and how they can be supported by theoretical approaches to develop testable predictions and to generalise empirical results. We review four key areas where a combined aboveground-belowground approach offers perspectives for enhancing ecological understanding, namely succession, agro-ecosystems, biological invasions and global change impacts on ecosystems. In plant succession, differences in scales between aboveground and belowground biota, as well as between species interactions and ecosystem processes, have important implications for the rate and direction of community change. Aboveground as well as belowground interactions either enhance or reduce rates of plant species replacement. Moreover, the outcomes of the interactions depend on abiotic conditions and plant life history characteristics, which may vary with successional position. We exemplify where translation of the current conceptual succession models into more predictive models can help targeting empirical studies and generalising their results. Then, we discuss how understanding succession may help to enhance managing arable crops, grasslands and invasive plants, as well as provide insights into the effects of global change on community re-organisation and ecosystem processes.
View details for DOI 10.1007/s00442-009-1351-8
View details for Web of Science ID 000267345500001
View details for PubMedID 19412705
The stochastic arrival of competing species and their subsequent interactions have been highlighted as principal forces underlying biotic historical effects in community assembly. However, despite the widely recognized effect of predation on prey communities, the effects that the stochastic arrival of predators may have on assembling communities are poorly understood. We used a microbial microcosm experiment to investigate whether the timing of predator arrival to a prey community undergoing naturalistic succession affected species abundances and community diversity. Predator arrival timing affected the long-term abundance of a prey species that was persistent throughout succession in the absence of predators. Our data indicate that this timing effect occurred indirectly via transient interactions between early-successional prey species and predators. Specifically, we suggest that transient early-successional prey species served as a springboard for early-arriving (but not late-arriving) predators, allowing the exploiting predators to increase their abundances and subsequently alter long-term community dynamics. These results show that the history of predator arrival can have lasting consequences for community structure in ecological succession.
View details for DOI 10.1086/596538
View details for Web of Science ID 000263126800011
View details for PubMedID 19183067
Diversity in biological communities is a historical product of immigration, diversification and extinction, but the combined effect of these processes is poorly understood. Here we show that the order and timing of immigration controls the extent of diversification. When an ancestral bacterial genotype was introduced into a spatially structured habitat, it rapidly diversified into multiple niche-specialist types. However, diversification was suppressed when a niche-specialist type was introduced before, or shortly after, introduction of the ancestral genotype. In contrast, little suppression occurred when the same niche specialist was introduced relatively late. The negative impact of early arriving immigrants was attributable to the historically sensitive outcome of interactions involving neutral competition and indirect facilitation. Ultimately, the entire boom-and-bust dynamics of adaptive radiation were altered. These results demonstrate that immigration and diversification are tightly linked processes, with small differences in immigration history greatly affecting the evolutionary emergence of diversity.
View details for DOI 10.1038/nature05629
View details for Web of Science ID 000245079500039
View details for PubMedID 17377582
Many ecological dynamics occur over time-scales that are well beyond the duration of conventional experiments or observations. One useful approach to overcome this problem is extrapolation of temporal dynamics from spatial variation. We review two complementary variants of this approach that have been of late increasingly employed: the use of natural gradients to infer anthropogenic effects and the use of anthropogenic gradients to infer natural dynamics. Recent studies have considered a variety of naturally occurring gradients associated with climate, CO2, disturbance and biodiversity gradients, as well as anthropogenic gradients such as those created by biological invasions, habitat fragmentation and land abandonment. These studies show that natural gradients are useful in predicting long-term consequences of human-induced environmental changes, whereas anthropogenic gradients are helpful in inferring the mechanisms behind natural dynamics because covarying factors are often more clearly understood in anthropogenic gradients than in natural gradients. We classify these studies into several categories, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and outline how the limitations can be overcome by combining the gradient-based approach with other approaches. Overall, studies reviewed here demonstrate that the development of basic ecological concepts and the application of these concepts to environmental problems can be more effective when conducted complementarily than when pursued separately.
View details for DOI 10.1098/rspb.2005.3277
View details for Web of Science ID 000232634600001
View details for PubMedID 16191623
Identification of the causes of productivity-species diversity relationships remains a central topic of ecological research. Different relations have been attributed to the influence of disturbance, consumers, niche specialization and spatial scale. One unexplored cause is the history of community assembly, the partly stochastic sequential arrival of species from a regional pool of potential community members. The sequence of species arrival can greatly affect community structure. If assembly sequence interacts with productivity to influence diversity, different sequences can contribute to variation in productivity-diversity relationships. Here we report a test of this hypothesis by assembling aquatic microbial communities at five productivity levels using four assembly sequences. About 30 generations after assembly, productivity-diversity relationships took various forms, including a positive, a hump-shaped, a U-shaped and a non-significant pattern, depending on assembly sequence. This variation resulted from idiosyncratic joint effects of assembly sequence, productivity and species identity on species abundances. We suggest that the history of community assembly should be added to the growing list of factors that influence productivity-biodiversity patterns.
View details for DOI 10.1038/nature01785
View details for Web of Science ID 000184318400042
View details for PubMedID 12879069