Navigating the devious course of evolution: the importance of mechanistic models for identifying eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature.


In proposing his genetic feedback mechanism, David Pimentel was one of the first biologists to argue that the reciprocal interplay of ecological and evolutionary dynamics is an important process regulating population dynamics and ultimately affecting community composition. Although the past decade has seen an increase in research activity on these so-called eco-evolutionary dynamics, there remains a conspicuous lack of compelling natural examples of such feedback. Here we argue that this lack may be due to an inherent difficulty in detecting eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature. By examining models of virulence evolution, host resistance evolution, and antigenic evolution, we show that the influence of evolution on ecological dynamics can often be obscured by other ecological processes that yield similar dynamics. We then show, however, that mechanistic models can be used to navigate this, in Pimentel's words, "devious" course of evolution when effectively combined with empirical data. We argue that these models, improving upon Pimentel's original mathematical models, will therefore play an increasingly important role in identifying more subtle, but possibly ubiquitous, eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature. To highlight the importance of identifying these potentially subtle dynamics in nature, we end by considering our ability to anticipate the effect of population control strategies in the presence of these eco-evolutionary feedbacks.

MIDAS Network Members