In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolutionary Ecology of Communities

  • Introduction
  • Biogeographic Origins and Evolution of Components of Communities
  • Is There Density Dependent Diversification?
  • Community Genetics
  • Plant-Insect Interactions
  • Evolution in the Context of Metacommunities
  • Communities, Phylogenetics, and Ecosystem Function
  • Integrating Evolutionary Thinking in Conservation and Restoration

Evolutionary Biology Evolutionary Ecology of Communities
Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Shan Kothari, Will Pearse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0111


Ecological communities are composed of interacting or potentially interacting organisms. Communities do not evolve per se; rather, they shift in composition, diversity, and structure through time. The assembly of local communities is influenced by both regional factors and local processes, each of which can influence evolutionary patterns and processes within those communities. We start by discussing early ecological and evolutionary debates on the nature of communities and then consider regional-historical perspectives codified by later researchers. We then consider recent research on the phylogenetic structure of communities, considering the myriad local and long-term biogeographic and macroevolutionary processes that can affect it. On shorter evolutionary timescales, we briefly treat the literature in community genetics and eco-evolutionary dynamics, which shows how community interactions can exert evolutionary pressures that then have further consequences at the community and ecosystem scales. In these sections, we mostly draw from studies on plant communities, but we also consider trophic interactions, particularly plant-insect interactions, and animal community guilds, such as Anolis lizards and dragonflies. We discuss the importance of an evolutionary perspective on communities for understanding ecosystem processes, and its relevance for conservation and restoration. Finally, we discuss seminal methods to examine the consequences of evolutionary processes for community assembly.

Historical Perspectives on the Nature of Communities

The early 20th century saw many debates on the nature of ecological communities that have echoes in current discussions about how evolution operates in a community context. It has been known, since at least the time of Alexander von Humboldt, that the traits of species are linked to gradients in climate across major biomes; Darwin clarified how such gradients drive species differences. Although these broad patterns are well recognized, the manner in which communities assemble locally has been contested ever since, and evolutionary considerations have been brought into this debate almost from the start. Some researchers have emphasized the ways that species in communities evolve in situ as a result of their interactions, eventually becoming closely associated with one another. Others contend that species assemblages are transient products of historical contingency, and they are continually re-created as a consequence of environmental change. Moreover, debate is ongoing about whether current patterns of species composition and richness can be explained primarily in terms of present-day abiotic conditions and species interactions or whether biogeographic history leaves an imprint. In favor of the latter view, researchers have marshalled evidence that factors like long-term regional climatic stability or chance colonization events have had strong legacy effects on the composition and richness of present-day communities. In this section, we review these debates, and trace the first applications of explicitly evolutionary methods to understanding community assembly. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists tend to explain the assembly of communities in terms of factors that operate along different timescales, but a long tradition in natural history considers ecological and evolutionary processes to be inextricably linked.

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