Understanding biological diversity

I have stated that evolutionary ecology is collectively about understanding diversity. Biological diversity is expressed through variation in the characteristics of individuals, populations, communities, and clades. The characteristics that differ include phenotypic traits, population size, and species richness (Table 16.1). How has evolutionary ecology addressed these characteristics?

Table 16.1 The entities and traits that ecologists and evolutionary biologists study








Number of

Number of

Number of



phenotypes or


Chapters 2 and 3 assessed how major innovations in phenotypic characteristics occurred. These changes increased the total diversity of traits on the planet, and many were successful in a macroevolutionary sense, increasing species richness or other community properties. They explain why the world is a rich and complex place. Chapters 4 to 7 considered how variation in phe-notype arises even without major innovations discussed in earlier chapters. They explain the little traits that make even closely related species or individuals differ in form and function. In Chapter 8, we considered how population size can be controlled through evolutionary processes. Rather interestingly, we can not only explain variation in population size and dynamics through trait evolution, but also trait evolution through population dynamics. The result is not just variation in numbers but also variation in form and function.

In Chapters 9 to 11,we considered properties of species that are also properties of communities: their interactions with other species. Ecological interactions evolve between generalism and specialism, between mutualism and antagonism, or can follow a large number of co-evolutionary pathways, and because of that the world is full of complex ecological communities and of species that differ. In Chapters 12 to 15, we considered properties of communities and clades, such as their species richness and constituent body sizes. The rates of change in cladogenesis and morphological variation differ over time and space and among lineages, and in doing so create the patterns in traits and species richness that dominate our world. In these ways evolutionary ecology addresses some of the major questions posed by ecology and evolution, and also some of the major questions of any kind about the biosphere and its constituents.

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