• Open Access

Are specialists at risk under environmental change? Neoecological, paleoecological and phylogenetic approaches


*E-mail: andreas.prinzing@univ-rennes1.fr


The question ‘what renders a species extinction prone’ is crucial to biologists. Ecological specialization has been suggested as a major constraint impeding the response of species to environmental changes. Most neoecological studies indicate that specialists suffer declines under recent environmental changes. This was confirmed by many paleoecological studies investigating longer-term survival. However, phylogeneticists, studying the entire histories of lineages, showed that specialists are not trapped in evolutionary dead ends and could even give rise to generalists. Conclusions from these approaches diverge possibly because (i) of approach-specific biases, such as lack of standardization for sampling efforts (neoecology), lack of direct observations of specialization (paleoecology), or binary coding and prevalence of specialists (phylogenetics); (ii) neoecologists focus on habitat specialization; (iii) neoecologists focus on extinction of populations, phylogeneticists on persistence of entire clades through periods of varying extinction and speciation rates; (iv) many phylogeneticists study species in which specialization may result from a lack of constraints. We recommend integrating the three approaches by studying common datasets, and accounting for range-size variation among species, and we suggest novel hypotheses on why certain specialists may not be particularly at risk and consequently why certain generalists deserve no less attention from conservationists than specialists.