The Quest for Predicting Plant-Soil Feedback

A new study from the Department of Soil Quality at Wageningen University and the Department of Terrestrial Ecology at Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) gives evidence that plants grow better in soil from other species. Published today in Journal of Ecology, the paper is written by Cortois et al. and is titled; Plant-soil feedbacks: role of plant functional group and plant traits. 

Authors Roeland Cortois and Gerlinde De Deyn have described below their inspiration behind the study and the significance of their work in the understanding of plant-soil feedbacks and their role in plant communities.

It all started with a simple question which we asked ourselves several years ago: can plant-soil feedbacks explain overyielding in plant species rich communities? 

First of all we aimed to figure out whether plant-soil feedback (PSF) is actually occurring at a measurable and relevant scale and whether feedback sign (positive, neutral or negative) and strength are predictable from plant traits. Considering the growth versus defense trade-off hypothesis, we expected plant species with more acquisitive traits to build-up more negative feedback, whereas species with conservative traits would build-up more positive feedback with their own soil biota.

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Volume 104, Issue 5

The September issue of Journal of Ecology is now online!

Volume 104, Issue 5

September 2016: Volume 104, Issue 5

This issue includes a Special Feature edited by Wayne Dawson and Maarten Schrama titled; Digging Deeper: How soil biota drive and respond to plant invasions. The Special Feature brings together current research on soil microbes as drivers and responders of invasion, highlighting the methods that can be used to advance our understanding of how, when and which soil microbes play a role in the invasion process. The collection comprises of 6 research articles as well as an editorial from the guest editors. All the papers are currently free to access here

Other papers featured in this issue include an interesting study by Kramer-Walter et al. which compares leaf, stem and root functional traits of some common woody species native to New Zealand, as well as a commentary on the same paper by Oscar Valverde-Barrantes and Christopher Blackwood. There is also a study on plant diversity and functional trait composition by Timo Conradi and Johannes Kollmann which evaluates the drivers of community structure of recovering calcareous grasslands. Further contributions include a paper from McIntire et al. on factors limiting tree line seedling abundance, a study about two invasive Australian acacias from Correia et al., and a study by Avila et al. on Quercus suber dieback. There are also two Open Access papers in this issue, including a plant mutualism study from Shelby et al. and a paper on the effect of drought periods from Fuchslueger et al.

The cover image for the September issue was provided by Duane Peltzer, one of the co-authors of the Gundale et al. Special Feature paper on plant interactions with fungi. The photo shows the invasion of the North American Lodgepole pine in New Zealand into an area previously dominated by a Southern Hemisphere beech species, as shown in the forest in the background.

James Ross
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

Some ESA 2016 afterthoughts on the Era of the Anthropocene, Population Ecology, and Archbold by Rob Salguero-Gómez

The annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America took place a bit over a week ago (Aug 7-12th 2016) in Fort Lauderdale. ESA + Florida + August + no hurricanes in Florida the last 10 years = get ready to get blown away either by an overdue hurricane or by the great science that is typically presented at the ESA. Thanks to the fact that a hurricane last week decided last minute to divert its trajectory away from Ft Lauderdale, we were only blown away by the science… ok, and by a lot of humidity too.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene”, continuing the legacy that was set at the centennial meeting last year in Baltimore. Ecology has the challenging responsibility of understanding and producing predictions regarding how ecological systems will respond to various interacting drivers, both biotic and abiotic. The emphasis in the last decades has turned to treating humans as a third axes of effects. Along that line of thought, the 2016 meeting was full of keynote talks and symposia that nicely summarized our current understanding of human effects on ecosystems and set goals and directions for our futures research steps. I have followed the work by Jeannine Cavender-Bares for a while now (who hasn’t right?), and I thoroughly enjoyed her New Phytologist lecture “Evolutionary legacies on ecosystems: implications for managing planet Earth in the Anthropocene”.

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Reflecting on ESA2016 ‘Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene’: Three Ecologists Provide Contrasting Perspectives.

Traveling back from the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America, I was struck by how well the meeting theme ‘Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene’ resonated through the presentations (a second theme was seafood – see below). Not all, but a large number of organized sessions and symposia were organized around the meeting theme such as ‘Rising Novelty in Ecosystems and Climates: Looking to the Past to Understand a No-Analog Future’, ‘Novel Ecosystems and Adaptive Management: Sustainability in the Anthropocene’, and ‘Ecological Novelty in the Anthropocene: Are Novel Communities Novel Ecosystems?’.  I didn’t get to most of these, and my own presentation on weed seedling emergence was clearly off-topic, but the social media buzz was all about the theme. All of this sharpened my thinking and awareness of the topic, and, as I listened to presentations, it became clear that while a full understanding and appreciation of the theme among ecologists is emerging, a consensus on how we can apply knowledge from studying and characterizing modern and past ‘novel ecosystems’ is still unclear. Are novel ecosystems systems unique (i.e., ‘no-analog’) only to the recent human-characterized past (i.e., the Anthropocene), or must they have never existed in the deeper past? Do we characterize novel ecosystems by their species assemblage, functional traits, or ecosystem services (or some combination)? Do we manage for novel ecosystems, or are we to accept that they are characteristic of the current biosphere that we have to ‘live with’? 

Here we present interviews with three ecologists that I ran into at ESA. All are Journal of Ecology Associate Editors so each has a good sense for some of the best research being conducted and published. Charlie Canham and Emily Farrer are also co-authors on a couple of the papers that the British Ecological Society included in a Virtual Issue made available to celebrate the ESA meeting theme. I asked the same set of questions to each, albeit with unique follow-ups, but, as you’ll hear, heard a distinctly different, but informed, take. Clearly, the meeting theme is important and relevant, and it’s very interesting to learn how different ecologists view it.

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Winner of the Postdoctoral Excellence Award – ESA Plant Population Ecology

Editor’s note

We are very pleased to announce that Jenni McDonald has been selected to receive the Postdoctoral Excellence Award by the Ecological Society of America’s Plant Population Ecology section for her Journal of Ecology paper, “Transients drive the demographic dynamics of plant populations in variable environments.” This paper was part of a BES cross-journal Special Feature “Demography Beyond the Population” comprising 21 papers on this important topic. Congratulations Jenni!

David Gibson
Executive Editor, Journal of Ecology

Jenni.pngJenni McDonald is an early career researcher currently two years into her first postdoctoral research position at the University of Exeter. Her research applies comparative demographic approaches to explore the evolution of life histories. Using COMPADRE, a global database of plant demographic models, coupled with simulated life histories, she is exploring the demographic buffering hypothesis, a theory that predicts traits that have a large influence on fitness are stabilized against environmental change by buffering that trait. Her exploration of stochastic population dynamics in combination with the strong transient research background of colleagues (past and present) at the University of Exeter led to the research topic of the paper published in Journal of Ecology, which highlights the importance of transients in variable environments.

Transients in variable environments

The natural world is rarely constant. Consequently, studying the dynamics of wild plant populations in variable environments is of particular significance to ecologists seeking to understand life history evolution, and has major implications for management and conservation. 

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Harper Review 2016 – meet the author

This year wHarper review covere published the first of our annual Harper Review series. The series is named after past BES President and Journal of Ecology Editorial Board member, the late John L. Harper CBE FRS and is designed to be thought provoking, authoritative and of broad interest to the ecological community.

Our inaugural review was written by Yvonne Buckley from Trinity College, Dublin and Jane Catford from the University of Southampton and is titled  Does the biogeographic origin of species matter? Ecological effects of native and non-native species and the use of origin to guide management.

We asked Yvonne, who is one of journal’s Associate Editors, to tell us a bit about the review and her research.

        How did you feel about being asked to write our first Harper Review?

Reading Harper’s book “Population Biology of Plants” as an undergraduate sparked my interest in population ecology so it was a real honour to be asked to write the inaugural Harper Review for Journal of Ecology. I had been thinking about writing that paper some time ago but other projects kept getting in the way, the review deadline was great motivation to finally sit down and write it! My co-author Jane Catford and I had been working on a paper on the different demographic dimensions of species invasiveness (also recently published in Journal of Ecology) so we decided to work on the Harper review together as well.

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Press Release: The oceans are full of barriers for small organisms

A new study from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, published in Journal of Ecology today, shows that small changes in ocean salinity and temperature can significantly affect the distribution and diversity of phytoplankton.

The paper was written by Mousing et al. and is titled; Evidence of small-scale spatial structuring of phytoplankton alpha- and beta-diversity in the open ocean.

Read the full press release from the University of Copenhagen below.

The oceans are full of barriers for small organisms

Subtle and short-lived differences in ocean salinity or temperature function as physical barriers for phytoplankton, and result in a patchy distribution of the oceans’ most important food resource. The new research from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen may help explain the large biodiversity in the sea.

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Meet the Team at ESA 2016

The annual ESA meeting is fast approaching. This year it’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and I’ll be heading across the pond, along with Catherine Hill, our Head of Publications and Hazel Norman, our Executive Director, to chat to delegates about Journal of Ecology, as well as our other journals and the BES as a whole.

ESA 2016

ESA, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 7th -12th August 2016

The Journal of Ecology Executive Editor David Gibson will also be attending the meeting as will several of our very hard working Associate Editors. I’m looking forward to a productive meeting with all of them and also to thanking them in person for their help towards making Journal of Ecology the success that it is.

If you’re attending ESA and are a reader of the journal, thinking of submitting, or would like to make suggestions for improvements or content, please come and find me, Catherine or Hazel at the BES stand for a chat. We’ll be at stand number 202-204.

In addition to the three of us, David Gibson along with Alan Knapp, one our sister journal Functional Ecology’s Senior Editors will be at the stand during the Wednesday 10th August poster session to answer your questions about publishing in our journals.

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out about the great work the BES does to communicate and promote ecological knowledge around the world, come and meet our amazing President Sue Hartley at our stand on Tuesday 9 August between 4.30pm and 6.30pm.

When we’re not at the stand you’ll mainly find us outside enjoying the only sun we’re likely to get this year, before heading back to grey old London!

Emilie Aimé
Managing Editor

No functional redundancy in freshwater bacterial community

New lay summary wrote by Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo about his paper”Lack of functional redundancy in the relationship between microbial diversity and ecosystem functioning” published in the last issue (July) of Journal of Ecology. Happy reading! 

The shape of the relationship between microbial diversity and ecosystem function (BEF) remains unclear, which limits our capacity to assess the impact of microbial diversity depletion on key ecosystem functions for human well-being, such as CO2 respiratory fluxes and toxin degradation. This knowledge is, moreover, key to predicting ecosystem functions under changing environment and formulating sustainable natural resource management and conservation policies. Here we conducted three independent microcosm experiments to assess the shape of the bacterial BEF relationship in multiple freshwater ecosystems from Australia and United Kingdom.

Our results provide solid evidence that unlike the positive but decelerating BEF relationship observed most frequently in plants and animals, most evaluated functional measurements were related to bacterial diversity in a non-redundant fashion (e.g. exponentially and/or linearly). Reduced bacterial diversity, even after accounting for biomass, caused a decrease in broad (i.e., CO2 respiratory fluxes: conducted by many microbial communities) and specialized (toxin degradation: conducted by few microbial communities) functions in all cases.

Altogether, our results indicate that any loss of freshwater bacterial diversity can disproportionately promote high losses in ecosystem functioning; thus the consequences of declining microbial diversity on ecosystem functioning and human welfare have likely been considerably underestimated.

Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo
Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment
Western Sydney University


Adaptation: an invasion mechanism adopted by an alien seaweed

Mahasweta Saha and collaborators have an interesting paper published in the last issue (July) of Journal of Ecology titled “Rapid adaptation to controlling new microbial epibionts in the invaded range promotes invasiveness of an exotic seaweed“. The lead author of this article, Mahasweta Saha, wrote a blog post below describing the context and results of her research.

Along with ocean warming and habitat and biodiversity loss, invasive species are one of the important components of global change. Rabbits are classic examples of invasive species from the terrestrial environment. According to a news article published in The Guardian in 2010, “Britain’s 40m rabbits cost more than £260m a year in damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure”. Even if we disregard the damage that they cause at national and international level, I know from my personal experience that these cute little bunnies are not welcomed at all!

My neighbours in Suchsdorf (Kiel, Germany) do not appreciate the local rabbit population as these rabbits frequently munch on their plants causing damage to their beautiful garden. In response, my neighbours installed electric wire around the garden to stop wild rabbits from entering. Initially, this appeared to be working but to our surprise, the bunnies turned out to be very smart. To cope with the new challenge of the electric wire, I observed that they simply adjusted their hop’s height and made higher hops compared to their usual ones. Thus, the smart bunnies simply adapted themselves to the new challenge that they faced in their life.

This story is very much applicable to my study published in Journal of Ecology, entitled “Rapid adaptation to controlling new microbial epibionts in the invaded range promotes invasiveness of an exotic seaweed” which involved a model seaweed Gracilaria vermiculophylla adopting a similar strategy to survive and thrive in a new invaded environment. This East Asian red algae is actually one of the top most alien seaweed species that has been introduced to Europe. It was first detected in significant amounts along the Kiel Fjord (Baltic sea) in 2005, followed by a ‘bust’ and subsequent regrowth of their population in the following years. Looking for the reasons, we analyzed the defense mechanisms of native (South Korean population) and alien Gracilaria (German and Danish population) against bacterial enemies originating from respective local habitats.


Red algae Gracilaria vermiculophylla growing attached in stones in Nordstand (North Sea)

By an elegant experimental approach, which included a crosswise testing of alien and native populations of the algal host and co-occuring bacteria, we showed that the native and alien populations of Gracilaria were equally well defended in their actual habitat, but weakly defended when confronted to potentially harmful bacterial enemies from the other habitats. This means that, within a few years, the alien population lost its defence capacities against its old foes but acquired potent defenses against the new ones.

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M. Saha with Gracilaria vermiculophylla in the climate chamber of GEOMAR

Our study is novel and exciting because it is the first study demonstrating the role of defence adaptation to new bacterial enemies in contributing to the success of an alien plant invasion. Such adaptation dynamics could be also applicable to other types of host plants, enemy interaction in general, and for cases of shifting plant and enemy interactions under climate change.

Mahasweta Saha
Department of Experimental Ecology
Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research