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“It’s an exciting time to be an ecologist,” said visiting lecturer Jonathan Levine from STEM university ETH Zurich, who stood in front of an eager crowd of students, post-doctoral students, and faculty gathered to hear him speak. The lecture focused on Levine’s current research, as well as the current grand scheme of ecological research.

“Ecologists have a fundamental curiosity about how nature operates,” said Levine. However, he added, “What drives today’s research can be found by an inherent need to solve global environmental challenges such as climate change and pollution.”

Levine opened his lecture with these two rudimentary ideas: an essential curiosity about nature and a desire to solve the current environmental challenges.

Current experimental ecologists are interested in how large impacts on ecosystems operate, Levine explained. Furthermore, he argued, the introduction of “novel competitors” shapes the overall fate of the already inhabitant species.

“[Novel competitors] play decisive roles in shaping the fate of individual species under climate change,” Levine said.

“Climate change does not directly influence the eco-physiological performance of focal species, but rather it influences the changes of a competitive environment in which these focal species reside,” Levine said. These dynamic changes in the local ecosystem are what ecologists and environmentalists alike are concerned about — it is this shift in equilibrium that drives Levine’s current research.

In his lecture, Levine stated, “There are hurdles to empirical understanding.” The professor’s lecture made it clear that experimentalists can work around the difficulties of modeling focal species’ reactions to novel competitors from climate change by mimicking temperature and performing field work. He referenced his personal work with local plants in the alpine region in Switzerland, where he worked with two postdocs on mimicking plant migration due to an apparent changing climate.

“In 100 years’ time, due to increasing temperature, these plants will find a climate comparable to the where they live today, about 600 meters upslope,” Levine said. To see how different species of plant life reacted to novel competitors, Levine and his team dug out sections of plant life and transported them to mid- and upper-regions of the mountain, where different plant life grows.

If the focal plant failed to migrate, Levine said, “it exhibited a vastly different ‘demographic performance’ when competing with novel competitors.” However, if the focal species was successful in migrating to a new location, there was very little change in identifying the region’s environmental competitor.

Here, trait differences were responsible for the failure to migrate upslope, or up the mountain. The functional traits of plants were found to be not significantly associated with their competitive niche differences. “In other words,” as Levine said, “if two future competitors who have different trait values were to meet, it is not expected that these species would have weakened competition — the should not easily coexist.”

“Trait difference in an ecosystem drives competitive balance,” Levine explained, recalling his experiment in Switzerland in which plants with functionally similar traits grew much better than plants that brought in different trait values. This, according to the professor, “may even be generalized to ecologies that are not plant based, but much more complicated in nature.” Novel competitors strongly shape the fates of focal species under conditions of climate change.

Levine argued that there is a strong relationship between ecology motivated by some “fundamental curiosity” and ecology motivated by “a need to solve environmental challenges.”

Namely, having worked on a problem of novel competitive interactions, Levine acknowledged two major gaps in this field that have yet to be determined: which species will actively take part in competitive dynamics, and whether or not ecologists can predict their outcome without doing numerous experiments. Such problems share a desire to address inevitable climate change and how it affects competitive dynamics, but also stems from a fundamental curiosity on how the ecology of an environment ultimately behaves.

The lecture took place on Feb. 9 in Guyot 10 and was part of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 522 Lecture Series.

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