In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Community Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Community Ecology
  • Historical Background
  • Applications

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Ecology Community Ecology
Herman A. Verhoef
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0042


At the beginning of the 20th century there was much debate about the “nature” of communities. The driving question was whether the community was a self-organized system of co-occurring species or simply a haphazard collection of populations with minimal functional integration. At that time, two extreme views dominated the discussion: one view considered a community as a superorganism, the member species of which were tightly bound together by interactions that contributed to repeatable patterns of species abundance in space and time. This concept led to the assumption that communities are fundamental entities, to be classified as the Linnaean taxonomy of species. Frederick E. Clements was one of the leading proponents of this approach, and his view became known as the organismic concept of communities. This assumes a common evolutionary history for the integrated species. The opposite view was the individualistic continuum concept, advocated by H. A. Gleason. His focus was on the traits of individual species that allow each to live within specific habitats or geographical ranges. In this view a community is an assemblage of populations of different species whose traits allow persisting in a prescribed area. The spatial boundaries are not sharp, and the species composition can change considerably. Consequently, it was discussed whether ecological communities were sufficiently coherent entities to be considered appropriate study objects. Later, consensus was reached: that properties of communities are of central interest in ecology, regardless of their integrity and coherence. From the 1950s and 1960s onward, the discussion was dominated by the deterministic outcome of local interactions between species and their environments and the building of this into models of communities. This approach, indicated as “traditional community ecology,” led to a morass of theoretical models, without being able to provide general principles about many-species communities. Early-21st-century approaches to bringing general patterns into community ecology concern (1) the metacommunity approach, (2) the functional trait approach, (3) evolutionary community ecology, and (4) the four fundamental processes. The metacommunity approach implicitly recognizes and studies the important role of spatiotemporal dynamics. In the functional trait approach, four themes are focused upon: traits, environmental gradients, the interaction milieu, and performance currencies. This functional, trait-focused approach should have a better prospect of understanding the effects of global changes. Evolutionary community ecology is an approach in which the combination of community ecology and evolutionary biology will lead to a better understanding of the complexity of communities and populations. The four fundamental processes are selection, drift, speciation, and dispersal. This approach concerns an organizational scheme for community ecology, based on these four processes to describe all existing specific models and frameworks, in order to make general statements about process–pattern connections.

General Overviews

The now-classic discussion on the nature of communities dates from the early 1920s, the two opponents of which have already been mentioned in the Introduction: F. E. Clements with his organismic concept (Clements 1916) and H. A. Gleason with his individualistic continuum concept (Gleason 1926). Especially in the former concept, the community was thought to live as a superorganism, as a fundamental unit, in a specific area. As “the most general definition one can give,” C. J. Krebs (Krebs 1972) describes a community in his classic textbook as “an assemblage of populations of living organisms in a prescribed area or habitat.” In that same year, MacArthur 1972, a book on geographical ecology, stated that “the goal of community ecology is to find general rules.” It is this quest to find general rules in community ecology that has caused much debate in the field of (theoretical) community ecology until the present. From the 1960s onward the focus within community ecology was on the study of the population dynamics of pairs of species and the building of models. Important publications concerning this subject are May 2001 and Tilman 1976. These publications were very important to explain one- to few-species systems but hardly provided general rules for communities existing of many species, as is mentioned in Putman 1994, which states that “. . . it is difficult to keep pace and retain a comprehensive overview of the entire discipline.” More recently, approaches have been presented that try to handle the current explosion of massive, high-resolution data based on individual-level sampling and satellite images, which attempt to bring this together into general patterns in community ecology. The following four books should also be mentioned in this section: Macroecology (Brown 1995, cited under Historical Background), Ecological Niches (Chase and Leibold 2003), Community Ecology (Verhoef and Morin 2010, cited under Applications), and Community Ecology (Morin 2011). Brown 1995 integrates data from ecology, systematics, evolutionary biology, paleobiology, and biogeography to investigate problems, providing a rich, more complete understanding of how patterns of life have moved across the earth over time. It also demonstrates the advantages of macroecology for conservation, showing how it allows scientists to look beyond endangered species and ecological communities to consider the long history and large geographic scale of human impacts. In Chase and Leibold 2003, questions such as “Why do species live where they live?”; “What determines the abundance and diversity of species in a given area?”; and “What role do species play in the functioning of entire ecosystems?” share a single core concept: the ecological niche. The authors define the niche as including both what an organism needs from its environment and how that organism’s activities shape its environment. Verhoef and Morin 2010 provides a survey of the state of the art in theory and applications of community ecology, with special attention to topology, dynamics, and the importance of spatial and temporal scale, as well as applications to emerging problems in human-dominated ecosystems, including the restoration and reconstruction of viable communities (see Applications). Morin 2011 gives an introduction to a coverage of concepts and theories central to community ecology, using examples drawn from terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems, and focusing on animal, plant, and microbial species. Throughout, there is an emphasis on the crucial interplay among observations, experiments, and mathematical models.

  • Chase, J. M., and M. A. Leibold. 2003. Ecological niches: Linking classical and contemporary approaches. Interspecific Interactions. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Although recently the niche concept has had a negative connotation among ecologists, Chase and Leibold argue that the niche is an ideal tool for unifying disparate research and theoretical approaches in contemporary ecology. Their niche concept is flexible enough to include a variety of small- and large-scale processes, from resource competition, predation, and stress to community structure, biodiversity, and ecosystem function.

  • Clements, F. E. 1916. Plant succession: An analysis of the development of vegetation. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 242. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.56234

    Clements’s magnus opus, in which he conceived of the community as a superorganism whose member species are tightly bound together both now and in their common evolutionary history. His ideas are out of date but are referred to in a historical context.

  • Gleason, H. A. 1926. The individualistic concept of the plant association. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 53.1: 7–26.

    DOI: 10.2307/2479933

    In this individualistic concept, which contrasts with Clements 1916, Gleason saw the relationship of coexisting species as simply the result of similarities in their requirements and tolerances. Though the current view is close to the individualistic concept, this article is mentioned only in a historical context.

  • Krebs, C. J. 1972. Ecology: The experimental analysis of distribution and abundance. New York: Harper and Row.

    A much-used textbook on ecology during the 1970s. As mentioned by the author, “This book is not an encyclopedia of ecology, but an introduction to its problems.” It approaches ecology in a general way, and not as the ecology per biotope.

  • MacArthur, R. H. 1972. Geographical ecology: Patterns in the distribution of species. New York: Harper & Row.

    This book forms the summation of the life work of one of the most influential scientists of our time. According to MacArthur the structure of the environment, the morphology of the species, the economics of species behavior, and the dynamics of population changes are the four essential ingredients of biogeographic patterns.

  • May, R. M. 2001. Stability and complexity in model ecosystems. 2d ed. Princeton Landmarks in Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1973. Robert May addressed in this classic book the following questions: What makes populations stabilize? What makes them fluctuate? Are populations in complex ecosystems more stable than populations in simple ecosystems? This book played a key role in introducing nonlinear mathematical models and the study of deterministic chaos into ecology.

  • Morin, P. J. 2011. Community ecology. 2d ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444341966

    This second, updated edition gives an introduction to a balanced coverage of concepts and theories central to community ecology, using examples drawn from terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems, and focusing on animal, plant, and microbial species. It offers a valuable resource for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

  • Putman, R. J. 1994. Community ecology. London and New York: Chapman & Hall.

    This is a typical, standard textbook for advanced undergraduates in ecology, with a chapter division following the basic elements of community ecology (definitions, population interactions, food webs, niche theory, etc.).

  • Tilman, D. 1976. Ecological competition between algae: Experimental confirmation of resource-based competition theory. Science 192.4238: 463–465.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.192.4238.463

    In laboratory studies of two species of freshwater diatoms potentially limited by phosphate and silicate, all possible outcomes of ecological competition, including stable coexistence, were found, with the relative abundance of these nutrients determining the outcome of competition. This important article is recurring in many textbooks in which examples are given of competition between two species.

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