Thursday, July 22, 2010

A metacommuntiy or a self-organized system?

It is always interesting to read how scientists read, understand, and interpret articles in very different way. You can encounter this most often for your own results when you present at a conference or seminar, and you get questions that throw you in a hoop, and track the articles that refer to one of your publications (admit it, you do it too): often the first response is "how could they interpret my text/data/interpretation in that context?". The 3 most obvious causes for this confusion in understanding are either related to the reader, the writer, or implicit differences between the reader and writer. 
  • the reader often lacks the time to understand something (e.g., when you are presenting something in 12 minutes)
  • the writer often lacks clarity in his/her explanation (e.g. when you present something or in referencing an article out of context)
  • or implicit differences in background, expertise, and even personality between readers and writer


While we are all seasoned writers that provide clear, explicit, well-crafted texts to our audience (or so we hope at least, right?), we often assume it is either problem 1: readers/reviewers/audience need to read it more carefully. We are less often exposed to the third type of cause, implicit differences between scientists, or the inherent subjectivity to science, if you will.

After reading the primer by O.J. Schmitz to an very interesting article by Pringle et al., both in PLoS Biology, I was again made aware of the importance of subjectivity in reading articles. The function of the primer is to provide a bigger context to an article such that it becomes more accessible to a bigger audience.  In his primer, Schmitz argues that there are two views on spatial dynamics in empirical systems: an intuitive and well-studied meta-system (or meta-community) view, and a self-organized system view that received less attention because it is a more abstract construct.

While you could argue at nauseam which is the most abstract theory, and whether self-emergent systems are uniquely characterized by positive interactions within a patch and negative feedback between patches, I interpreted the original article quite differently from Schmitz. I agree that the establishment of termite mounts is potentially an example of a self-organized system, but this is not the focus of the article. The focus of the article is what consequences these termite mounts have on the ecosystem. And at this point, the more natural theoretical framework is a metacommunity framework. Once the termite mounts are established, they become similar to lakes in a landscape, with very distinct environmental conditions within the mounts versus the savannah matrix. These differences in environmental conditions, together with dispersal dynamics, result in specific arthropod, plant, and arboreal predator communities. And this is exactly the metacommunity, or meta-ecosystem, approach.

So based on my interpretation, this article is not so much about self-organized systems as it provides a nice example of species sorting dynamics in a metacommunity expressed at multiple trophic levels. But am I maybe biased because I think that ecology is actually metacommunity ecology?

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