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  1. Abstract

    Cross‐species communication, where signals are sent by one species and perceived by others, is one of the most intriguing types of communication that functionally links different species to form complex ecological networks. Global change and human activity can affect communication by increasing fluctuations in species composition and phenology, altering signal profiles and intensity, and introducing noise. So far, most studies on cross‐species communication have focused on a few specific species isolated from ecological communities. Scaling up investigations of cross‐species communication to the community level is currently hampered by a lack of conceptual and practical methodologies. Here, we propose an interdisciplinary framework based on information theory to investigate mechanisms shaping cross‐species communication at the community level. We use plants and insects, the cornerstones of most ecosystems, as a showcase and focus on chemical communication as the key communication channel. We first introduce some basic concepts of information theory, then we illustrate information patterns in plant–insect chemical communication, followed by a further exploration of how to integrate information theory into ecological and evolutionary processes to form testable mechanistic hypotheses. We conclude by highlighting the importance of community‐level information as a means to better understand the maintenance and workings of ecological systems, especially during rapid global change.

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  2. Abstract

    The history of species immigration can dictate how species interact in local communities, thereby causing historical contingency in community assembly. Since immigration history is rarely known, these historical influences, or priority effects, pose a major challenge in predicting community assembly. Here, we provide a graph‐based, non‐parametric, theoretical framework for understanding the predictability of community assembly as affected by priority effects. To develop this framework, we first show that the diversity of possible priority effects increases super‐exponentially with the number of species. We then point out that, despite this diversity, the consequences of priority effects for multispecies communities can be classified into four basic types, each of which reduces community predictability: alternative stable states, alternative transient paths, compositional cycles and the lack of escapes from compositional cycles to stable states. Using a neural network, we show that this classification of priority effects enables accurate explanation of community predictability, particularly when each species immigrates repeatedly. We also demonstrate the empirical utility of our theoretical framework by applying it to two experimentally derived assembly graphs of algal and ciliate communities. Based on these analyses, we discuss how the framework proposed here can help guide experimental investigation of the predictability of history‐dependent community assembly.

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  3. Abstract

    Microbes form multispecies communities that play essential roles in our environment and health. Not surprisingly, there is an increasing need for understanding if certain invader species will modify a given microbial community, producing either a desired or undesired change in the observed collection of resident species. However, the complex interactions that species can establish between each other and the diverse external factors underlying their dynamics have made constructing such understanding context-specific. Here we integrate tractable theoretical systems with tractable experimental systems to find general conditions under which non-resident species can change the collection of resident communities—game-changing species. We show that non-resident colonizers are more likely to be game-changers than transients, whereas game-changers are more likely to suppress than to promote resident species. Importantly, we find general heuristic rules for game-changers under controlled environments by integrating mutual invasibility theory with in vitro experimental systems, and general heuristic rules under changing environments by integrating structuralist theory with in vivo experimental systems. Despite the strong context-dependency of microbial communities, our work shows that under an appropriate integration of tractable theoretical and experimental systems, it is possible to unveil regularities that can then be potentially extended to understand the behavior of complex natural communities.

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  4. Abstract

    The persistence of a species in a given place not only depends on its intrinsic capacity to consume and transform resources into offspring, but also on how changing environmental conditions affect its growth rate. However, the complexity of factors has typically taken us to choose between understanding and predicting the persistence of species. To tackle this limitation, we propose a probabilistic approach rooted on the statistical concepts of ensemble theory applied to statistical mechanics and on the mathematical concepts of structural stability applied to population dynamics models – what we callstructural forecasting. We show how this new approach allows us to estimate a probability of persistence for single species in local communities; to understand and interpret this probability conditional on the information we have concerning a system; and to provide out‐of‐sample predictions of species persistence as good as the best experimental approaches without the need of extensive amounts of data.

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  5. Abstract

    Resilience is broadly understood as the ability of an ecological system to resist and recover from perturbations acting on species abundances and on the system's structure. However, one of the main problems in assessing resilience is to understand the extent to which measures of recovery and resistance provide complementary information about a system. While recovery from abundance perturbations has a strong tradition under the analysis of dynamical stability, it is unclear whether this same formalism can be used to measure resistance to structural perturbations (e.g. perturbations to model parameters).

    Here, we provide a framework grounded on dynamical and structural stability in Lotka–Volterra systems to link recovery from small perturbations on species abundances (i.e. dynamical indicators) with resistance to parameter perturbations of any magnitude (i.e. structural indicators). We use theoretical and experimental multispecies systems to show that the faster the recovery from abundance perturbations, the higher the resistance to parameter perturbations.

    We first use theoretical systems to show that the return rate along the slowest direction after a small random abundance perturbation (what we call full recovery) is negatively correlated with the largest random parameter perturbation that a system can withstand before losing any species (what we call full resistance). We also show that the return rate along the second fastest direction after a small random abundance perturbation (what we call partial recovery) is negatively correlated with the largest random parameter perturbation that a system can withstand before at most one species survives (what we call partial resistance). Then, we use a dataset of experimental microbial systems to confirm our theoretical expectations and to demonstrate that full and partial components of resilience are complementary.

    Our findings reveal that we can obtain the same level of information about resilience by measuring either a dynamical (i.e. recovery) or a structural (i.e. resistance) indicator. Irrespective of the chosen indicator (dynamical or structural), our results show that we can obtain additional information by separating the indicator into its full and partial components. We believe these results can motivate new theoretical approaches and empirical analyses to increase our understanding about risk in ecological systems.

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  6. Mitri, Sara (Ed.)
    The persistence of virtually every single species depends on both the presence of other species and the specific environmental conditions in a given location. Because in natural settings many of these conditions are unknown, research has been centered on finding the fraction of possible conditions (probability) leading to species coexistence. The focus has been on the persistence probability of an entire multispecies community (formed of either two or more species). However, the methodological and philosophical question has always been whether we can observe the entire community and, if not, what the conditions are under which an observed subset of the community can persist as part of a larger multispecies system. Here, we derive long-term (using analytical calculations) and short-term (using simulations and experimental data) system-level indicators of the effect of third-party species on the coexistence probability of a pair (or subset) of species under unknown environmental conditions. We demonstrate that the fraction of conditions incompatible with the possible coexistence of a pair of species tends to become vanishingly small within systems of increasing numbers of species. Yet, the probability of pairwise coexistence in isolation remains approximately the expected probability of pairwise coexistence in more diverse assemblages. In addition, we found that when third-party species tend to reduce (resp. increase) the coexistence probability of a pair, they tend to exhibit slower (resp. faster) rates of competitive exclusion. Long-term and short-term effects of the remaining third-party species on all possible specific pairs in a system are not equally distributed, but these differences can be mapped and anticipated under environmental uncertainty. 
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  7. Spatial dynamics have long been recognized as an important driver of biodiversity. However, our understanding of species’ coexistence under realistic landscape configurations has been limited by lack of adequate analytical tools. To fill this gap, we develop a spatially explicit metacommunity model of multiple competing species and derive analytical criteria for their coexistence in fragmented heterogeneous landscapes. Specifically, we propose measures of niche and fitness differences for metacommunities, which clarify how spatial dynamics and habitat configuration interact with local competition to determine coexistence of species. We parameterize our model with a Bayesian approach using a 36-y time-series dataset of three Daphnia species in a rockpool metacommunity covering >500 patches. Our results illustrate the emergence of interspecific variation in extinction and recolonization processes, including their dependencies on habitat size and environmental temperature. We find that such interspecific variation contributes to the coexistence of Daphnia species by reducing fitness differences and increasing niche differences. Additionally, our parameterized model allows separating the effects of habitat destruction and temperature change on species extinction. By integrating coexistence theory and metacommunity theory, our study provides platforms to increase our understanding of species’ coexistence in fragmented heterogeneous landscapes and the response of biodiversity to environmental changes. 
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  8. Pollination plays a central role in both crop production and maintaining biodiversity. However, habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species and larger environmental fluctuations are contributing to a dramatic decline of pollinators worldwide. Different management solutions require knowledge of how ecological communities will respond following interventions. Yet, anticipating the response of these systems to interventions remains extremely challenging due to the unpredictable nature of ecological communities, whose nonlinear behaviour depends on the specific details of species interactions and the various unknown or unmeasured confounding factors. Here, we propose that this knowledge can be derived by following a probabilistic systems analysis rooted on non-parametric causal inference. The main outcome of this analysis is to estimate the extent to which a hypothesized cause can increase or decrease the probability that a given effect happens without making assumptions about the form of the cause–effect relationship. We discuss a road map for how this analysis can be accomplished with the aim of increasing our system-level causative knowledge of natural communities. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Natural processes influencing pollinator health: from chemistry to landscapes’. 
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