The interface between metacommunity ecology and microevolution in freshwater zooplankton
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In many habitats, species’ traits correspond strongly to local environmental conditions. The cause of this pattern may be in-situ evolution, where initially mal-adapted resident species evolved traits that increased their fitness. Alternatively, species with suitable traits may have colonized the focal habitat and replaced resident species. Since theories in the fields of evolutionary biology and community ecology developed independently, few guidelines tell us when to expect evolutionary adaptation or ecological species replacement as the primary driver of species and trait composition in a given habitat. The goal of my dissertation research was to explain how evolutionary adaptation and ecological species replacement together determine the composition of pond zooplankton communities. I combined theoretical models with thorough surveys of natural pond communities and manipulative experiments. I discovered that one particular zooplankton species, Daphnia pulex, evolved to have different trait values in ponds with different environments. The evolutionary divergence within D. pulex profoundly affected its ecological interactions with other zooplankton species. D. pulex populations diverged from one another so much that they differed in their ability to successfully colonize ponds full of competing zooplankton species. I also used a computer simulation model to determine when a community’s trait changes were explained by evolutionary adaptation or ecological species replacement. The dispersal rate of species among habitats and the amount of genetic variance within these species both influenced adaptive trait change in a community. The group of research studies that indicate evolutionary and ecological processes operate on a similar time scale is small but growing. My dissertation research provides another crucial demonstration that evolution within individual species, such as D. pulex, influences their community ecological interactions with other species. I also identified key parameters (dispersal rate among and genetic variance within species) that may help biologists predict whether evolution or ecological species replacement explained adaptive trait change. My projects mostly concern the community and trait distributions that result from the assembly of species in new habitats. However, this framework may inform studies of community response to environmental changes such as invasive species or habitat destruction.