Ecological Efficiency and Evolution

The central mechanism of microevolutionary change involves selection among alleles in a single population. Measuring selection is quite different from measuring ecological efficiency. There are many ways of organizing an energy budget but ecological efficiency determination always requires measurements on at least three populations. This is extremely important in the context of how natural selection impinges on ecological efficiency.

There is no way for natural selection to act on ecological efficiency directly, but the interaction between populations of predators and the populations of their prey is inherently unstable in the absence of natural selection. It has long been known that the interaction of predators and prey can be unstable in laboratory experiments and in mathematical models. Typically, the last prey is eaten and the predators then starve to death unless special mechanisms and properties exist that prevent or at least delay this collapse of the system.

Obviously, predators and their prey are both found in nature, as if there were evolutionary mechanisms for stabilizing their coexistence. The actual food webs and food chains we find are the survivors of a massive group selective selection process - all the unstable webs and food chains are gone. In addition, the natural selection on the process of predation and on the escape of prey while not selecting for any particular value of ecological efficiency will tend toward stabilization of the particular predator-prey system involved.

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