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Making sense of metacommunities: dispelling the mythology of a metacommunity typology


Metacommunity ecology has rapidly become a dominant framework through which ecologists understand the natural world. Unfortunately, persistent misunderstandings regarding metacommunity theory and the methods for evaluating hypotheses based on the theory are common in the ecological literature. Since its beginnings, four major paradigms—species sorting, mass effects, neutrality, and patch dynamics—have been associated with metacommunity ecology. The Big 4 have been misconstrued to represent the complete set of metacommunity dynamics. As a result, many investigators attempt to evaluate community assembly processes as strictly belonging to one of the Big 4 types, rather than embracing the full scope of metacommunity theory. The Big 4 were never intended to represent the entire spectrum of metacommunity dynamics and were rather examples of historical paradigms that fit within the new framework. We argue that perpetuation of the Big 4 typology hurts community ecology and we encourage researchers to embrace the full inference space of metacommunity theory. A related, but distinct issue is that the technique of variation partitioning is often used to evaluate the dynamics of metacommunities. This methodology has produced its own set of misunderstandings, some of which are directly a product of the Big 4 typology and others which are simply the product of poor study design or statistical artefacts. However, variation partitioning is a potentially powerful technique when used appropriately and we identify several strategies for successful utilization of variation partitioning.

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Many thanks to my postdoc mentor Mathew Leibold and fellow postdoc Nicolas Loeuille for planting the metacommunity bug in my ear, even though I was supposed to be working on compensatory dynamics at the time. We are also grateful to Mathew Leibold and Pedro Peres-Neto who commented on earlier versions of this manuscript. We acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation Grants DEB-1202932 to BLB and DEB-1406770 to BLB and JS.

Author contribution statement

This manuscript emerged from discussions conducted during meetings of the Brown Lab in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech during which all authors were present. All authors contributed significantly to the concept, development and writing of the present manuscript. BLB and ERS were responsible for final construction and editing of the present manuscript.

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Correspondence to Bryan L. Brown.

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Communicated by Joel Trexler.

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Brown, B.L., Sokol, E.R., Skelton, J. et al. Making sense of metacommunities: dispelling the mythology of a metacommunity typology. Oecologia 183, 643–652 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3792-1

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  • Metacommunity
  • Species sorting
  • Mass effects
  • Neutral theory
  • Patch dynamics
  • Variation partitioning