Does phylogenetic distance aid in detecting environmental gradients related to species composition?



Questions: How should we evaluate the success of new distance measures combining community abundance and phylogenetic information? How do we interpret ordinations using these metrics?

Methods: We generated synthetic data along a known environmental gradient with two hypothetical underlying phylogenetic structures: niche phylogenetically conserved or dispersed along a gradient. We also examined tree species composition associated with gradients in elevation and longitude in Oregon, USA. NMS ordinations of plots in species space from phylogenetic (PD) and Sørensen distance (SD) matrices allowed comparison of the use of PD in different scenarios.

Results: PD caused plots to cluster based on the clades that they contained, reducing stress with the synthetic data but not with the real example. Phylogenetic distance highlighted clades related to gradients when these were associated. When phylogeny was not conserved along a gradient, that gradient was less strong. Regardless of phylogenetic conservation, NMS using SD consistently extracted the strongest gradients in species composition.

Conclusions: The success of PD should be evaluated on how well it extracts gradients in species composition and allows community ecologists to determine which gradients are partially explained by phylogeny and not based on its ability to reduce ordination stress. PD ordinations can help community ecologists interpret niche conservation but may obscure gradients related to species composition when niches are not conserved along the gradient of interest at the scale of the study.