Key Concepts in Ecology: Landscape ecology and macroecology 

Key Concepts in Ecology: Landscape ecology and macroecology 

This blog post on ‘Landscape ecology and macroecology’ is part of the BES ‘Key Concepts in Ecology’ series, designed to help ecologists in learning the key topics in ecology! Take a look at the full blog series for a list of key topics you might typically find in an ecology textbook, each providing a quick introduction to the topic, and a list of suggested papers for students to refer to.  

Landscape ecology and macroecology are related fields within ecology, but they focus on different scales of ecological organisation. Landscape ecology investigates spatial patterns and ecological processes within landscapes, emphasising the interactions between human activities and natural environments. This branch of ecology recognises that ecosystems are interconnected and dynamic, with patterns of land use, habitat fragmentation, and spatial arrangement that influence the distribution and abundance of species. Macroecology, on the other hand, focusses on patterns and processes at broad scales, typically at regional to global levels. It investigates large-scale ecological patterns, such as species distributions, biodiversity gradients, and the scaling of ecological processes. The two fields are related because the structure and arrangement of landscapes can influence the patterns observed at larger scales, and vice versa. 

In the context of landscape ecology, islands serve as a microcosm where the interplay between geographical features and biological interactions shapes biodiversity. Keep in mind that islands can refer to aquatic islands (in ocean, lakes, or ponds), but also to terrestrial islands (habitat fragments in altered landscapes). For example, studying selective species extinction on islands of varying area can tell you about the species richness-area relationships (Si et al. 2016). Generally, taxonomic, functional, and phylogenetic diversities increase with island area and decrease with isolation (Si et al. 2017) in accordance with the theory of island biogeography, but there can be variations in the effects mediated by biological traits of the different faunal groups and habitat diversity (Ricklefs and Lovette 1999). Furthermore, studying the intricacies of functional diversity on islands or fragments can help to underscore the importance of spatial structures in shaping the ecological roles and adaptations of ecological communities, which in turn can help in habitat management and reserve design plans (Ding et al. 2013).  

In the context of macroecology, elevational and latitudinal gradients stand as pivotal phenomena, offering windows into the dynamics shaping biodiversity and ecological patterns across broad spatial scales. For example, the combined effects of elevation and latitude are key in determining bat diversity and distribution throughout the Neotropics (Bogoni et al., 2021). Furthermore, as species respond to variations in temperature and habitat availability along elevational and latitudinal gradients, it is possible to explore fundamental questions about the factors that influence the diversity of life on Earth in response to global changes. For example, studying latitudinal variations in water temperature can help to understand changes in rocky intertidal communities (Miner et al. 2021) and potential future shifts in the distributions of shark and ray species (Osgood et al. 2021), while the interplay between human activities and elevation gradients shapes bird communities on tropical islands (Sreekar et al. 2021).  

Macroecology also deals with large-scale ecological patterns and processes. For example, by exploring the influences of historical events, climatic conditions, topography, and vegetation structure, macroecology can provide a framework for understanding the spatial dynamics of biodiversity across different spatial scales (Carrasco et al. 2022). Additionally, the study of the drivers and consequences of spatial patterns in wildlife immune defence makes it possible to decipher the relationship between ecological factors and immune strategies implemented by various species (Becker et al. 2019). Furthermore, emphasising the context-dependent nature of macroecological patterns, studies exploring the abundance-range-size relationships of birds on a tropical island underscore the key roles of endemism and land-use types (Sreekar et al. 2021). 

Introduction written by Marta Rueda Garcia (Associate Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology). Reading list curated by the BES journal Editors. 

References and suggested reading 

Species-area relationships 

Si, X. et al. (2016), Selective extinction drives taxonomic and functional alpha and beta diversities in island bird assemblages. Journal of Animal Ecology, 85:409-418. 

Island biogeography theory 

Ricklefs, R.E. et al. (1999), The roles of island area per se and habitat diversity in the species-area relationships of four Lesser Antillean faunal groups. Journal of Animal Ecology, 68:1142-1160. 

Ding, Z. et al. (2013), Patterns of bird functional diversity on land-bridge island fragments. Journal of Animal Ecology, 82:781-790

Si, X. et al. (2017), Functional and phylogenetic structure of island bird communities. Journal of Animal Ecology, 86:532-542 

Elevational and latitudinal gradients 

Bogoni, J.A. et al. (2021), Interacting elevational and latitudinal gradients determine bat diversity and distribution across the Neotropics. Journal of Animal Ecology, 90:2729-2743. 

Miner, C.M. et al. (2021), Latitudinal variation in long-term stability of North American rocky intertidal communities. Journal of Animal Ecology, 90:2077-2093. 

Osgood, G.J. et al. (2021), Effects of climate-change driven gradual and acute temperature changes on shark and ray species. Journal of Animal Ecology, 90:2547-2559. 

Sreekar, R. et al. (2021), Land use and elevation interact to shape bird functional and phylogenetic diversity and structure: Implications for designing optimal agriculture landscapes. Journal of Animal Ecology, 58:1738-1748. 

Macroecological patterns 

Becker, D.J. et al. (2020), Macroinmunology: The drivers and consequences of spatial patterns in wildlife immune defense. Journal of Animal Ecology, 89:972-995. 

Carrasco, L. et al. (2022), The relative influence of history, climate, topography and vegetation structure on local animal richness varies among taxa and spatial grains. Journal of Animal Ecology, 91:1596-1611. 

Sreekar, R. et al. (2021), Endemicity and land-use type influence the abundance-range-size relationship of bird, on a tropical island. Journal of Animal Ecology, 90:460-470. 

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