Sea anemones from the 49th plate of Kunstformen der Natur (Image: Ernst Haeckel, 1904)

From the Amazon rainforest to the Arctic tundra, the world’s ecosystems host unique biological communities that have evolved and diversified over millennia. Since the 1970s, community ecologists have relied on two theories to explain the role that species interactions play in this astonishing biological diversity: coexistence theory, which maintains that competition among species for resources is the driving force; and food web theory, which argues that dependence, such as a predator’s reliance on prey or a pollinator’s reliance on nectar, is the prevailing influence. While both theories emphasize species interactions, there’s been surprisingly little effort to integrate them.

Hoping to build a bridge between the two theories, Lauren Shoemaker and Allison Barner — both James S. McDonnell Foundation Fellows involved in the JSMF-SFI Postdocs in Complexity Conferences — organized a new SFI working group, which will meet March 7-11. The group, which emerged out of a research jam at the fourth conference, will use data from marine ecosystems, where species interactions are well studied, to explore how elements of the competition and food web theories might be combined to create a fuller picture of the forces shaping biodiversity at the community level.

“It’s saying, ‘what happens when we look at this holistically?’” Shoemaker says.

“Ideally, we’ll develop a theory that can apply across ecosystems,” Barner adds.

The group is diverse, with researchers from fields ranging from molecular biology to fisheries biology to computer science. “One really exciting part of this working group, and SFI more generally, is it’s so unique in bringing together people of different backgrounds,” Shoemaker says. “We’re bringing in people from other disciplines to help us think about ecology in new ways.”


Read more about the working group, "Integrating Species Competition, Coexistence, and Network Theory."