Addressing context dependence in ecology

A phrase that you are bound to hear many times at any ecology conference is “it depends”. We see context dependence – variation in the magnitude or sign of ecological relationships depending on the conditions under which they are observed (Fig. 1) – in just about every study and every system. Such variation, especially when unexplained, can lead to spurious or seemingly contradictory conclusions across studies, which can limit understanding and our ability to transfer findings across studies, space, and time. Because of the wide prevalence of observed context dependence and the critical need to tackle it, a group of us recently knocked heads (and read lots of fabulous papers!) about how it can be addressed. Our reading, thinking, talking, drawing and writing culminated in this open access paper in TREE

Figure 1: Context dependence may be invoked when the observed relationship between two variables varies in (a) magnitude (strength), (b) sign (direction), and (c) uncertainty, applied here to hypothetical examples from plant invasions.

In the paper, we identify two types of context dependence resulting from four sources (Fig. 2). Mechanistic context dependence occurs when a relationship, say between variables X and Y, fundamentally differs under different ecological and spatiotemporal conditions. Such relationships arise from (i) interaction effects of another variable, Z, which modifies the effect of X on Y, reflecting ecological processes. Apparent context dependence occurs when the relationship between variables X and Y does not differ but appears to due to: (ii) the presence of confounding factors that are either unaccounted for or are measured and accounted for in some studies but not others; (iii) problems of statistical inference where studies differ in sampling accuracy and precision, statistical power, or interpretation of statistical measures; and (iv) methodological differences among studies whereby studies observe and measure variables or relationships in different ways.

Figure 2: Four sources of variation in the relationship between independent variable X and dependent variable Y, with illustrative examples and actions that can reduce unexplained variation and the likelihood of apparent context dependence.

We illustrate our typology using examples from biological invasions, a field where context dependence is prominent and widely discussed, but we propose that the typology is applicable across all areas of ecology (and it may well extend to all natural and biological sciences…). We conclude the paper by outlining steps for addressing the different types and sources of context dependence, and provide a decision tree that outlines key actions likely to be helpful. We believe that by recognising the different ways in which context dependence can arise, we can better account for context dependence and reduce the prevalence of unexplained variation in ecology.

Full paper: Catford, J.A., Wilson, J.R.U., Pyšek, P., Hulme, P.E. & Duncan, R.P. (in press) Addressing context dependence in ecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolutionlink (open access)

Weed or feed? New pasture plants intensify invasive species risk

Pasture plants gone rogue: Phalaris is highly invasive but new varieties are still being developed
Pasture plants gone rogue: Phalaris is highly invasive but new varieties are still being developed

To meet increasing demands for livestock production, agribusinesses around the world are breeding new varieties of pasture plants. Unfortunately, many of the plant characteristics promoted for use in pasture – higher growth rates, greater resistance to disease, higher tolerance of environmental extremes and higher reproduction – are shared by invasive species. Coupled with the fact that many pasture species are already highly invasive, this effectively means that agribusiness may be inadvertently breeding “super weeds”, which farmers then spread across the landscape.

And, just to make matters worse, this increased weed threat is going largely unchecked: even countries with leading biosecurity do not consider the weed risk posed by plant varieties that are developed within-country.

But all is not lost!

As described in a new PNAS paper led by Don Driscoll, there are various ways in which this problem can be fixed.

Read more about this issue in Nature, The Conversation and ESA’s Hot Topics or see more about it in Don’s video.

Invasive Gamba grass, planted for pasture, can increase bush fire intensity five fold
Invasive Gamba grass, planted for pasture, can increase bush fire intensity five fold

Flow regulation and drought drive riparian plant invasion

Ecologists, like epidemiologists, are often confronted with the challenge of trying to determine causality by piecing together bits of information observed in nature. When the presence or absence of a species at a site is affected by the characteristics of the environment and community, the availability and dispersal success of propagules, stochastic events and the peculiarities of the species itself, it can be very difficult to isolate the likely mechanisms that lead to the occurrence – or lack thereof – of a particular species, especially when the influential factors are highly correlated.

The joys of being in control.  (Source:
The joys of being in control.

Experiments are obviously made for getting around such problems; by controlling and isolating one factor at a time, the relative importance of different factors can be quantified. However, experiments are not always possible, desirable or ethical. Take plant invasions along rivers, for example: they occur at large spatial and temporal scales; many factors may drive the invasion process; introducing and augmenting the supply of invasive species is unpalatable and likely prohibited; plus, river environments are very hard to control and manipulate, as any manager will tell you. So, if we are limited to potentially confounded survey data, how can we more effectively identify the drivers of plant invasion so that we know which factors to target in weed management?

In a paper recently published in Diversity and Distributions, my colleagues and I contend that incorporating data about species characteristics into survey-based approaches provides an additional line of evidence that can be used to improve inferences drawn from patterns. We illustrate how using information about environmental gradients, species distributions and species characteristics can increase understanding of ecological phenomena – here, riparian plant invasion, which can help inform management responses.

Using this approach, we find that, of four hypotheses examined, hydrological modification (indicated by flood magnitude) most likely drives invasion in River Murray wetlands. Flow regulation may inhibit native species adapted to the historical hydrological regime, facilitating exotic species with different environmental ranges. A symptom of environmental change, invasion may have been exacerbated by drought, although it is unclear why.

By hitching a ride on walkers' shoes and boots, exotic plants may even invade places like this.  Columbia River Valley, Oregon. (Source: JAC).
By hitching a ride on walkers’ boots, exotic plants may even invade places like this.
Columbia River Valley, Oregon. (Source: JAC).

There was no indication that human-increased propagule pressure or colonisation ability facilitated invasion. Exotic cover was unrelated to proximity to towns, recent flood frequency and cattle grazing intensity. Additionally, similar proportions of exotic and native species were used in cultivation and, despite a higher proportion of exotics being known weeds, weed status was unrelated to exotic species occupancy. Overall, colonisation ability was unrelated to species’ origin or response to water depth and hydrological change. Although exotics had higher specific leaf area and shorter longevity (indicative of higher colonisation ability), they had heavier (not lighter) seeds and did not differ in height from natives.

Based on our findings, we conclude that (i) using environmental flows to reinstate mid-range floods and (ii) augmenting the propagule supply of native species with characteristics suitable for modified conditions may help limit invasion in these wetlands.

For more, have a look here or drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy. I’d be delighted to hear any thoughts, comments or queries that you may have.

Project kick-off: propagule pressure, functional traits, resource availability and plant invasion

As mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky enough to be awarded one of the inaugural ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) late last year. I officially started my DECRA research in April, so I thought it was time that I introduce it – albeit rather briefly.

In essence, I am planning to investigate the susceptibility of native vegetation edges to alien plant invasion using quantitative and experimental approaches.  The project will contain both theoretical and applied elements and will primarily examine plant invasion through a community ecology lens (or is it community assembly through an invasion lens??!).

I’ll specifically be looking at the combined (and interactive) effects of species traits, resource availability and propagule pressure on invasion success using Bayesian meta-analysis, causal modelling and a field experiment.  As stated in my grant application, “disentangling effects of alien species’ seed supply, high resource availability (light, water, nutrients) and species’ traits on invasion will indicate their relative influence on plant invasion and community assembly.  As a result, new knowledge will be gained on the efficacy of invasive species prevention and control by indicating which invasion pathways to target, and under what conditions.”

The project will run for three years and I’ll be splitting my time between Australia and the US to achieve it. The plan is to work with CEED/NERP folk on the more quantitative aspects of the project while in Australia (principally with people like Brendan Wintle, Cindy Hauser, Mick McCarthy and Peter Vesk in the QAEcology group at Melbourne Uni, but also with Phil Gibbons and David Lindenmayer at the Australian National University; more on that later). I’ll conduct the experiment at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Minnesota working with David Tilman.  I’m planning to spend two months at the University of Minnesota this year (July-August) and then 6 months for the following two years (roughly April-Sept/Oct).  As a lover of warm weather, an endless summer comes as an added bonus!

New paper: The intermediate disturbance hypothesis and plant invasions: implications for species richness and management

Jan 2012 – Some colleagues and I have recently written a paper that examines the relationship between the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (IDH) and alien plant invasions.  Published in Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, the paper is structured around two questions: in accordance with IDH, 1) at what disturbance frequencies is alien plant colonisation most likely and why, and 2) where along the disturbance continuum (at which successional stage) are alien plants likely to reduce community diversity and why?  We use understanding of community and invasion ecology to answer these questions, drawing on empirical evidence from a variety of terrestrial ecosystems.  We conclude the paper by discussing implications and strategies for managing plant communities and how patterns of invasion might change in the future.

You can find a summary of the paper on our lab website.

If you’d like a copy, please shoot me an email.

Newsletter article: Causes, impacts and ways to manage exotic plant invasion along the River Murray

Dec 2011 – Condensing a rather large topic down to a single page, I discuss some of the processes that lead to high levels of invasion in riparian zones in this article. I also present  information on why we should be concerned about riparian plant invasion, as well as some of the management approaches that are available. Published in the Inland Rivers Network News, you can find the article on page 9 of the Summer 2012 edition.

ARC success!

Nov 2011 – I’ve just been awarded a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council. Over the next three years (2012-2015), I will investigate the susceptibility of native vegetation edges to alien plant invasion using quantitative and experimental approaches.  I’ll specifically be looking at the combined (and interactive) effects of species traits, resource availability and propagule pressure on invasion success.  As such, it’ll effectively be an experiment in community assembly, but one with an invasion flavour. Working with David Tilman, I’ll be conducting the experiment at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Minnesota.

It is all incredibly exciting!

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