Using phylogenetics to guide local management

In this post Associate Editor Akira Mori discusses a paper he recently handled by Daniel Larkin and colleagues ‘Phylogenetic measures of plant communities show long-term change and impacts of fire management in tallgrass prairie remnants

Evaluating biological diversity is now often one of the major issues for local and regional environmental management. Numerous efforts have been made to record, monitor, and evaluate the state of diversity. Among such efforts, trait-based approaches are increasingly becoming popular to help fill the knowledge gap.

The assessment of the state of diversity using functional and phylogenetic information can often give mechanistic understandings of the causes and consequences of local diversity. For instance, critical local processes of community assembly such as limiting similarity and habitat filtering can be well quantified with the help of trait analyses. Functional traits, which can be separated into response and effect traits, may show the vulnerability of communities to environmental fluctuations and their roles in supporting ecosystem functions. Phylogenetic approaches are useful to provide ecological and evolutional perspective as a function of geographical and environmental gradients.

A recent paper by Larkin et al. focuses on the potential of phylogenetics to guide local management. The study used a 25-year monitoring data set of tallgrass prairie remnants. The application of phylogenetic approaches for assessing monitoring outcomes is novel and the study nicely describes the utility and potential as well as caveats of the approach. The attempt to capture local community dynamics using phylogenies is not only informative for conservation efforts in the focal system, but is also widely applicable to other systems and thus improves restoration and management in different regions.

As the authors state, phylogenetic information for plants is becoming easy to obtain. Tools and metrics to use phylogenetic information are rapidly developing. Given this, phylogenetic evaluation for plant communities is expected to further become important for identifying critical factors and processes that structure ecological communities, both in theory and practice. Most importantly, I believe that readers, including me, can be informed through careful explanation of this paper about complemental (not substitutive) relationships among taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic diversity. As explained in this study, much uncertainty still exists for the phylogeny-based approaches. I expect readers to view the explanations about such shortcomings as the “future direction” of this research field.

Theory-driven conservation and restoration are expected to become increasingly important. In this regard, this study has large implications. It found that species of concern such as invading species (winners) and declining species (losers) were phylogenetically non-random. Based on this, the authors concluded that phylogenetically-informed species selection could be a means of increasing the functionality of communities in restoration. I hope that studies such as the one by Larkin et al. will further identify the key processes to conserve and restore not only the number but also the functionality of ecological communities.

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