The role of phylogeny in desert rodent community assembly


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[ Many landscapes span communities of varying degrees of biological complexity. Across such a gradient, diversity begets diversity. Increased environmental heterogeneity in the Mojave Desert increases the diversity of rodent consumers, in particular by allowing species that are phylogenetically more similar to coexist in more species rich communities. ]

Stevens, R.D., Gavilanez, M.M., Tello, J.S. & Ray, D.A. (2012) Phylogenetic structure illuminates the mechanistic role of environmental heterogeneity in community organization. Journal of Animal Ecology, 81, 455–462.

Recent advances in molecular genetics and phylogenetic reconstruction have the potential to transform ecology by providing new insights into the historical evolution of ecological communities. This study by Stevens and collaborators complements decades of previous research on desert rodents, by combining data from a field study and a phylogenetic tree for Mojave Desert rodents to address patterns and processes of community assembly. The number of coexisting rodent species is positively correlated, and the average phylogenetic distance among these species is negatively correlated with perennial plant species richness. As rodent species diversity increases along a gradient of increasing environmental heterogeneity, communities are composed of increasingly related species: there is a consistent pattern of phylogenetic structure from over-dispersed through random to clumped. I discuss this pattern in the light of complementary results of previous studies. This paper is noteworthy for calling attention to still unanswered questions about how the historical events of speciation, colonization, extinction, and trait evolution and their relationship to past climates and vegetation have given rise to current patterns of community organization.