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SPatial and environmental determinants of Eco-Evolutionary DYnamics: anthropogenic environments as a model

Research project P7/04 (Research action P7)


Persons :

  • Prof. dr.  DE MEESTER Luc - Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (K.U.Leuven)
    Coordinator of the project
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  HENDRICKX Frederik - Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences ()
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Prof. dr.  MATTHYSEN Erik - Universiteit Antwerpen (UA)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  VAN DYCK Hans - Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  LENS Luc - Universiteit Gent (RUG)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  FONTANETO Diego - Institute for European Studies (IES)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  DECLERCK Steven - Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  TRAVIS Justin MJ - University of Aberdeen (UNI-ABDN)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017
  • Dr.  PERES-NETO Pedro - Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/10/2012-30/9/2017

Description :

Humans have an overwhelming impact on the natural environment, leading to a deep biodiversity crisis that ranges from genes to ecosystems (Butchart et al. 2010). Anthropogenic environments also create strong selection regimes that may change both species and genetic composition (Palumbi 2001; Darimont et al. 2009). There is now a nascent unifying theory that recognizes that ecological and evolutionary dynamics in response to environmental change are not independent from each other, but may strongly interact leading to important changes in predictions of biological responses to environmental gradients (Hairston et al. 2005; Urban et al. 2008; Pelletier et al. 2009; Schoener 2011; Ellner et al. 2011). This new integration of ecological and evolutionary dynamics is inspired by the increasing number of studies showing that evolutionary responses to environmental changes can occur at the same temporal and spatial scales and thus directly impact ecological responses (Stockwell et al. 2003). Eco-evolutionary dynamics are increasingly recognized as being of key importance in making realistic predictions of population and community responses to anthropogenic changes, including climate change (De Meester et al. 2011; Urban et al. 2011) and land use change (Cheptou et al. 2008). Improving these predictions is essential to design conservation strategies (Lankau et al. 2011). To the extent that eco-evolutionary dynamics also impact ecosystem functioning (Fussman et al. 2007; Matthews et al. 2011), their consideration may also deepen our understanding of changes in ecosystem services, i.e. services delivered by ecosystems to human societies. Precisely because anthropogenic disturbance creates new environments that exert strong selection pressures, they are also excellent model systems to study how organisms adapt to these environmental challenges and how this feeds back to community and ecosystem functioning. The need to study eco-evolutionary dynamics in anthropogenic environments for improving our predictive capacity can thus be synergistically coupled to their value in informing us much on how eco-evolutionary dynamics impact biological responses.

Spatial variation plays a key role in eco-evolutionary responses to environmental change. The way in which local populations, communities and ecosystems react to environmental change may critically depend on the interaction between local and regional responses (De Meester et al. 2011; Urban et al. 2011). Local populations and communities may respond to environmental change by changes in the relative abundance of local genotypes or species, but may also be strongly influenced by the arrival of pre-adapted genotypes or species from the regional genotype and species pool (Urban et al. 2011). Spatial configuration of habitat patches may strongly influence how the environment shapes eco-evolutionary dynamics (Kozak et al. 2008). Dispersal rates depend on the dispersal capacity of organisms and their regional abundance, while the identity of immigrants depends amongst others on the configuration of habitat quality in space. In addition, organisms widely differ in reproductive mode and generation time, and this strongly impacts the strength of local responses. As a result, the interplay of local and regional responses in eco-evolutionary dynamics is expected to vary across organism groups. Hence a general predictive framework of anthropogenic impact that builds on eco-evolutionary dynamics requires to take into account variation in organismal properties. In this proposal, we address this challenge, bringing together a consortium that has the capacity to tackle this multifaceted problem.

The consortium brings together teams with proven excellence and a few young promising teams in complementary fields in ecological and evolutionary research (e.g. Lens et al. 2002; Decaestecker et al. 2007; Van der Gucht et al. 2007; Berwaerts et al. 2008; Bonte et al. 2008; Van Dyck et al. 2009; Hendrickx et al. 2009; Urban & De Meester 2009; Casteleyn et al. 2010; Matthysen et al. 2011). They have strong expertise in complementary approaches and tools, including large scale field surveys, experimental evolution, population genetics and genomics, mechanistic research on dispersal and fitness traits (e.g. behavioural, life history and eco-physiological research), and modeling. The different teams have incorporated space in their research either by explicitly focusing on dispersal and the mechanistic underpinning of dispersal events, by quantifying spatial configuration in landscapes and using a metapopulation or metacommunity approach, or by simulating metapopulation and metacommunity dynamics in a modeling environment. The consortium covers expertise on both aquatic and terrestrial organism groups, both vertebrates (birds and fish), invertebrates (zooplankton, arthropods, snails,…), plants and microbial organisms. It thus spans a wide variation in dispersal capacities, reproductive modes and generation times, essential to arrive at general conclusions. In addition, the consortium covers taxa that interact with each other, including host-parasite and predator-prey systems, within and across the aquatic-terrestrial ecosystem boundaries.

We take a threefold approach :

(1) Collective research on gradients of anthropogenic disturbance. The consortium will invest in a joint and highly integrated study of eco-evolutionary dynamics along strong gradients in anthropogenic disturbance, covering replicates of habitats along (semi)natural-rural-urban habitat gradients in Belgium. In a collective effort spanning hierarchically nested spatial scales and various organism groups we will document how both populations and communities respond to the same strong overall gradients of anthropo¬ge¬nic impact. The studied urbanization gradients encompass, amongst others, changes in pollution, temperature, habitat patch size and habitat connectivity. Emphasis will be on the joint analysis of metapopulation and metacommunity structure to capture eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature. Key features of this research will be (a) a spatially explicit and detailed characterization of landscape structure in terms of environmental gradients being tuned to the various organism groups; (b) genetic analyses of meta¬population structure of focal taxa, covering both neutral and adaptive markers and ecologically rele¬vant traits (i.e. also involving population genomics and quantitative genetics), (c) an analysis of local and regional species composition, and (d) associated trait values. The com¬bination of these approaches allows to link both adaptive and neutral dynamics at both the population and community level in a spatially explicit context. This analysis of ecological and evolutionary res¬ponses at both local and regional levels for a range of organism groups provides an unprecedented opportunity to assess how anthropogenic environments influence biological communities. In targeted cases, these can be linked to changes in ecosystem processes (e.g. productivity, decomposition rates). Our approach is much more powerful than traditional meta-analyses to extract differential responses across organism groups, as we work on the same overall landscape settings. We will study well-characterized gradients of urbanization within a polygon determined by the cities of Antwerp, Gent, Namur and Leuven, which includes the city of Brussels.

(2) Targeted mechanistic research on specific questions. We will capitalize on the current expertise and data-sets of the partnering research groups to carry out targeted, mechanistic experiments that are of crucial importance to inform the interpretation of our collective research outlined above. Amongst others we will carry out mechanistic research on dispersal decisions in (semi)natural settings, experimental analyses on ecophysiological responses, experimental evolution trials to study mode and speed of evolution and associated changes in ecosystem function, and analyses of host-parasite dynamics (in birds, butterflies, fish, damselflies and zooplankton).

(3) Synthesis across temporal and spatial scales. In addition to the synthesis on eco-evolutionary dynamics drawn from our joint research outlined above, we will model eco-evolutionary dynamics across broad temporal and spatial scales. We will capitalize on our complementary modeling approaches as well as on our joint expertise on studying ecological, micro-evolutionary and macro-evolutionary dynamics, including adaptive radiation. Our aim is to build quantitative models that encompass evolutionary processes at various temporal scales and in spatial settings that vary widely in connectivity.

The legacy of the proposed IAP will be:

(1) Insights in the population and community responses of a broad array of organisms to the same strong anthropogenic gradients. The scope of our research will provide unique opportunities to assess how organisms differ in their response to anthropogenic impact at different spatial scales. This has never been achieved before in an eco-evolutionary context, even though it is highly relevant especially in this context. Differences in local and regional dynamics, dependent on dispersal capacities, connectivity, reproductive mode and generation time, will determine how strongly eco-evolutionary dynamics will interact. Our study will also provide unique opportunities to address how eco-evolutionary dynamics may impact species interactions across trophic levels in space.

(2) Novel tools and concepts that address how to integrate ecological and evolutionary dynamics in a spatial context, and thus allow better predictions of responses of populations, communities and ecosystems to environmental change. These are urgently needed given the challenges imposed by the ever increasing impact of human societies on natural systems and the associated risk of deteriorating ecosystem services.

(3) A strong network of research teams that are at the frontier of the upcoming research field of eco-evolutionary dynamics and a well trained new generation of young researchers, combining theoretical and empirical approaches to yield stronger predictions on the biological consequences of human impact.
(4) An elaborate ecological and evolutionary public database of a wide group of organisms along standardized gradients of anthropogenic change, which may inform the evaluation of ecosystem services and management options.


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