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01 Feb 2020
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Evidence of tool use in a seabird?

Touchy matter: the delicate balance between Morgan’s canon and open-minded description of advanced cognitive skills in the animal

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Valérie Dufour and Alex Taylor

In a recent paper published in PNAS, Fayet et al. [1] reported scarce field observations of two Atlantic puffins (four years apart) apparently scratching their bodies using sticks, which was interpreted by the authors as evidence of tool use in this species. In a short response, Benjamin Farrar [2] raises serious concerns about this interpretation and proposes simpler, more parsimonious, mechanisms explaining the observed behaviour: a textbook case of Morgan's canon.
In virtually all introductory lectures on animal behaviour, students are advised to exercise caution when interpreting empirical data and weighting alternative explanations. We are sometimes prisoner of our assumptions: our desire of beliefs in advanced cognitive skills in non-human species make us more receptive to facts confirming our preconceptions than to simpler, less exciting, interpretations (a phenomenon known as "confirmation bias" in psychology). We must resist the temptation to accept appealing explanations without enough critical thinking. Our students are thus taught to apply the Lloyd Morgan's canon, a variant of one of the most important heuristics in Science, the principle of parsimony or Occam's razor, rephrased by Morgan [3, page 53] in the context of animal behaviour: "In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale". In absence of evidence to the contrary, one should postulate the simplest cognitive skill consistent with the observed behaviour. While sometimes criticized from an epistemological point of view [4-6], it remains an essential and largely accepted framework of animal cognition. It has repeatedly proved to be a useful guide in the minefield of comparative psychology. Classical ethology questions related to the existence of, for instance, meta-cognition [7], intentionality or problem solving [8] have been convincingly investigated using this principle.
Yet, there is a downside to this conservative approach. Blind reference to Morgan's canon may narrow our theoretical thinking about animal cognition [7,9]. It could be counter-productive to systematically deny advanced cognitive skills in animals. On the contrary, keeping our mind open to unplanned observations, unexpected discoveries, or serendipity [10], and being prepared to accept new hypotheses, sometimes fairly remote from the dominant paradigm, may be a fruitful research strategy. To quote Darwin's famous letter to Alfred Wallace: "I am a firm believer, that without speculation there is no good and original observation" [11]. Brief notes in specialized scientific journals, or even in grey literature (by enthusiast amateur ornithologists, ichthyologists, or entomologists), constitutes a rich array of anecdotal observations. For instance, Sol et al. [12] convincingly compared the innovation propensity across bird species by screening ornithology literature using keywords like 'never reported', 'not seen before', 'first report', 'unusual' or 'novel'. Even if "the plural of anecdote is not data" as the saying goes, such descriptions of novel behaviours, even single-subject observations, are indisputably precious: taxonomic ubiquity of a behaviour is a powerful argument in favour of evolutionary convergence. Of course, a race to the bottom, amplified by the inevitable media hypes around scientific articles questioning human exceptionalism, is another possible scientific trap for behavioural biologists in search of skills characteristic of so-called advanced species, but never described so far in supposedly cognitively simpler organisms. As stated by Franz de Waal [9]: "I have nothing against anecdotes, especially if they have been caught on camera or come from reputable observers who know their animals; but I do view them as a starting point of research, never an end point".
In the case of the two video observations of puffins apparently using sticks as scratching tool, it must be considered as a mere anecdote unless scientists systematically investigate this behaviour. In his constructive criticism of Fayet et al.'s paper, Benjamin Farrar [2] proposes interesting directions of research and testable predictions. A correlation between the background rate of stick picking and the rate of stick preening would indicate that this behaviour was more likely explained by fluke than genuine innovation in this species.


[1] Fayet, A. L., Hansen, E. S., and Biro, D. (2020). Evidence of tool use in a seabird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(3), 1277–1279. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1918060117
[2] Farrar, B. G. (2020). Evidence of tool use in a seabird? PsyArXiv, 463hk, ver. 5 recommended and peer-reviewed by Peer Community In Ecology. doi: 10.31234/
[3] Morgan, C. L. (1894). An introduction to comparative psychology. London, UK: Walter Scott, Ltd. Retrieved from
[4] Meketa, I. (2014). A critique of the principle of cognitive simplicity in comparative cognition. Biology and Philosophy, 29(5), 731–745. doi: 10.1007/s10539-014-9429-z
[5] Fitzpatrick, S. (2017). Against Morgan's Canon. In K. Andrews and J. Beck (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of philosophy of animal minds (pp. 437–447). London, UK: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. doi: 10.4324/9781315742250.ch42
[6] Starzak, T. (2017). Interpretations without justification: a general argument against Morgan's Canon. Synthese, 194(5), 1681–1701. doi: 10.1007/s11229-016-1013-4
[7] Arbilly, M., and Lotem, A. (2017). Constructive anthropomorphism: a functional evolutionary approach to the study of human-like cognitive mechanisms in animals. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1865), 20171616. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1616
[8] Taylor, A. H., Knaebe, B., and Gray, R. D. (2012). An end to insight? New Caledonian crows can spontaneously solve problems without planning their actions. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1749), 4977–4981. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1998
[9] de Waal, F. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? New-York, USA: W. W. Norton and Company.
[10] Scheffer, M. (2014). The forgotten half of scientific thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(17), 6119–6119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404649111
[11] Darwin, C. R. (1857). Letter to A. R. Wallace, 22 December 1857. Retrieved 30 January 2020, from
[12] Sol, D., Lefebvre, L., and Rodríguez-Teijeiro, J. D. (2005). Brain size, innovative propensity and migratory behaviour in temperate Palaearctic birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1571), 1433–1441. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3099

Evidence of tool use in a seabird?Benjamin G. FarrarFayet, Hansen and Biro (1) provide two observations of Atlantic puffins, *Fratercula arctica*, performing self-directed actions while holding a stick in their beaks. The authors interpret this as evidence of tool use as they suggest that the stick...Behaviour & EthologyFrancois-Xavier Dechaume-Moncharmont2020-01-22 11:55:27 View
25 May 2021
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Clumpy coexistence in phytoplankton: The role of functional similarity in community assembly

Environmental heterogeneity drives phytoplankton community assembly patterns in a tropical riverine system

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO and ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Eric Goberville and Dominique Lamy

What predisposes two individuals to form and maintain a relationship is a fundamental question. Using facial recognition to see whether couples' faces change over time to become more and more similar, psychology researchers have concluded that couples tend to be formed from the start between people whose faces are more similar than average [1]. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.

And what about in nature? Are these rules of assembly valid for communities of different species?

In his seminal contribution, Robert MacArthur (1984) wrote ‘To do science is to search for repeated patterns’ [2]. Identifying the mechanisms that govern the arrangement of life is a hot research topic in the field of ecology for decades, and an absolutely essential prerequisite to answer the outstanding question of what shape ecological patterns in multi-species communities such as species-area relationships, relative species abundances, or spatial and temporal turnover of community composition; amid others [3]. To explain ecological patterns in nature, some rely on the concept that every species - through evolutionary processes and the acquisition of a unique set of traits that allow a species to be adapted to its abiotic and biotic environment - occupies a unique niche: Species coexistence comes as the result of niche differentiation [4,5]. Such a view has been challenged by the recognition of the key role of neutral processes [6], however, in which demographic stochasticity contributes to shape multi-species communities and to explain why congener species coexist much more frequently than expected by chance [7,8]. While the niche-based and neutral theories appear seemingly opposed at first sight [9], the dichotomy may be more philosophical than empirical [4,5]. Many examples have come to support that both concepts are not incompatible as they together influence the structure, diversity and functioning of communities [10], and are simply extreme cases of a continuum [11]. From this perspective, extrinsic factors, i.e., environmental heterogeneity, may influence the location of a given community along the niche-neutrality continuum. 

The walk of species in nature is therefore neither random nor ecologically predestined. In microbial assemblages, the co-existence of these two antagonistic mechanisms has been shown both theoretically and empirically. It has been shown that a combination of stabilising (niche) and equalising (neutral) mechanisms was responsible for the existence of groups of coexistent species (clumps) in a phytoplankton rich community [12]. Analysing interannual changes (2003-2009) in the weekly abundance of diatoms and dinoflagellates located in a temperate coastal ecosystem of the Western English Channel, Mutshinda et al. [13] found a mixture of biomass dynamics consistent with the neutrality-niche continuum hypothesis. While niche processes explained the dynamic of phytoplankton functional groups (i.e., diatoms vs. dinoflagellates) in terms of biomass, neutral processes mainly dominated - 50 to 75% of the time - the dynamics at the species level within functional groups [13]. From one endpoint to another, defining the location of a community along the continuum is all matter of scale [4,11].

In their study, testing predictions made by an emergent neutrality model, Graco-Roza et al. [14] provide empirical evidence that neutral and niche processes joined together to shape and drive planktonic communities in a riverine ecosystem. Body size - the 'master trait' - is used here as a discriminant ecological dimension along the niche axis. From their analysis, they not only show that the specific abundance is organised in clumps and gaps along the niche axis, but also reveal that different clumps exist along the river course. They identify two main clumps in body size - with species belonging to three different morphologically-based functional groups - and characterise that among-species differences in biovolume are driven by functional redundancy at the clump level; species functional distinctiveness being related to the relative biovolume of species. By grouping their variables according to seasons (cold-dry vs. warm-wet) or river elevation profile (upper, medium and lower course), they hereby highlight how environmental heterogeneity contributes to shape species assemblages and their dynamics and conclude that emergent neutrality models are a powerful approach to explain species coexistence; and therefore ecological patterns.


[1] Tea-makorn PP, Kosinski M (2020) Spouses’ faces are similar but do not become more similar with time. Scientific Reports, 10, 17001.

[2] MacArthur RH (1984) Geographical Ecology: Patterns in the Distribution of Species. Princeton University Press.

[3] Vellend M (2020) The Theory of Ecological Communities (MPB-57). Princeton University Press.

[4] Wennekes PL, Rosindell J, Etienne RS (2012) The Neutral—Niche Debate: A Philosophical Perspective. Acta Biotheoretica, 60, 257–271.

[5] Gravel D, Guichard F, Hochberg ME (2011) Species coexistence in a variable world. Ecology Letters, 14, 828–839.

[6] Hubbell SP (2001) The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography (MPB-32). Princeton University Press.

[7] Leibold MA, McPeek MA (2006) Coexistence of the Niche and Neutral Perspectives in Community Ecology. Ecology, 87, 1399–1410.[1399:COTNAN]2.0.CO;2.

[8] Pielou EC (1977) The Latitudinal Spans of Seaweed Species and Their Patterns of Overlap. Journal of Biogeography, 4, 299–311.

[9] Holt RD (2006) Emergent neutrality. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21, 531–533.

[10] Scheffer M, Nes EH van (2006) Self-organized similarity, the evolutionary emergence of groups of similar species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 6230–6235.

[11] Gravel D, Canham CD, Beaudet M, Messier C (2006) Reconciling niche and neutrality: the continuum hypothesis. Ecology Letters, 9, 399–409.

[12] Vergnon R, Dulvy NK, Freckleton RP (2009) Niches versus neutrality: uncovering the drivers of diversity in a species-rich community. Ecology Letters, 12, 1079–1090.

[13] Mutshinda CM, Finkel ZV, Widdicombe CE, Irwin AJ (2016) Ecological equivalence of species within phytoplankton functional groups. Functional Ecology, 30, 1714–1722.

[14] Graco-Roza C, Segura AM, Kruk C, Domingos P, Soininen J, Marinho MM (2021) Clumpy coexistence in phytoplankton: The role of functional similarity in community assembly. bioRxiv, 869966, ver. 6 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.


Clumpy coexistence in phytoplankton: The role of functional similarity in community assemblyCaio Graco-Roza, Angel M. Segura, Carla Kruk, Patricia Domingos, Janne Soininen, Marcelo M. Marinho<p style="text-align: justify;">Emergent neutrality (EN) suggests that species must be sufficiently similar or sufficiently different in their niches to avoid interspecific competition. Such a scenario results in a transient pattern with clumps an...Coexistence, Community ecology, Theoretical ecologyCédric Hubas2020-01-23 16:11:32 View
21 Nov 2023
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Pathogen community composition and co-infection patterns in a wild community of rodents

Reservoirs of pestilence: what pathogen and rodent community analyses can tell us about transmission risk

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Adrian Diaz, Romain Pigeault and 1 anonymous reviewer

Rodents are well known as one of the main animal groups responsible for human-transmitted pathogens. As such, it seems logical to try and survey what kinds of pathogenic microbes might be harboured by wild rodents, in order to establish some baseline surveillance and prevent future zoonotic outbreaks (Bernstein et al., 2022). This is exactly what Abbate et al. (2023) endeavoured and their findings are intimidating. Based on quite a large sampling effort, they collected more than 700 rodents of seven species around two villages in northeastern France. They looked for molecular markers indicative of viral and bacterial infections and proceeded to analyze their pathogen communities using multivariate techniques.

Variation in the prevalence of the different pathogens was found among host species, with e.g. signs of CPXV more prevalent in Cricetidae while some Mycoplasma strains were more prevalent in Muridae. Co-circulation of pathogens was found in all species, with some evidencing signs of up to 12 different pathogen taxa. The diversity of co-circulating pathogens was markedly different between host species and higher in adult hosts, but not affected by sex. The dataset also evinced some slight differences between habitats, with meadows harbouring a little more diversity of rodent pathogens than forests. Less intuitively, some pathogen associations seemed quite repeatable, such as the positive association of Bartonella spp. with CPXV in the montane water vole. The study allowed the authors to test several associations already described in the literature, including associations between different hemotropic Mycoplasma species.

I strongly invite colleagues interested in zoonoses, emerging pandemics and more generally One Health to read the paper of Abbate et al. (2023) and try to replicate them across the world. To prevent the next sanitary crises, monitoring rodents, and more generally vertebrates, population demographics is a necessary and enlightening step (Johnson et al., 2020), but insufficient. Following the lead of colleagues working on rodent ectoparasites (Krasnov et al., 2014), we need more surveys like the one described by Abbate et al. (2023) to understand the importance of the dilution effect in the prevalence and transmission of microbial pathogens (Andreazzi et al., 2023) and the formation of epidemics. We also need other similar studies to assess the potential of different rodent species to carry pathogens more or less capable of infecting other mammalian species (Morand et al., 2015), in other places in the world.


Abbate, J. L., Galan, M., Razzauti, M., Sironen, T., Voutilainen, L., Henttonen, H., Gasqui, P., Cosson, J.-F. & Charbonnel, N. (2023) Pathogen community composition and co-infection patterns in a wild community of rodents. BioRxiv, ver.4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology. 

Andreazzi, C. S., Martinez-Vaquero, L. A., Winck, G. R., Cardoso, T. S., Teixeira, B. R., Xavier, S. C. C., Gentile, R., Jansen, A. M. & D'Andrea, P. S. (2023) Vegetation cover and biodiversity reduce parasite infection in wild hosts across ecological levels and scales. Ecography, 2023, e06579.
Bernstein, A. S., Ando, A. W., Loch-Temzelides, T., Vale, M. M., Li, B. V., Li, H., Busch, J., Chapman, C. A., Kinnaird, M., Nowak, K., Castro, M. C., Zambrana-Torrelio, C., Ahumada, J. A., Xiao, L., Roehrdanz, P., Kaufman, L., Hannah, L., Daszak, P., Pimm, S. L. & Dobson, A. P. (2022) The costs and benefits of primary prevention of zoonotic pandemics. Science Advances, 8, eabl4183.
Johnson, C. K., Hitchens, P. L., Pandit, P. S., Rushmore, J., Evans, T. S., Young, C. C. W. & Doyle, M. M. (2020) Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287, 20192736.
Krasnov, B. R., Pilosof, S., Stanko, M., Morand, S., Korallo-Vinarskaya, N. P., Vinarski, M. V. & Poulin, R. (2014) Co-occurrence and phylogenetic distance in communities of mammalian ectoparasites: limiting similarity versus environmental filtering. Oikos, 123, 63-70.
Morand, S., Bordes, F., Chen, H.-W., Claude, J., Cosson, J.-F., Galan, M., Czirjak, G. Á., Greenwood, A. D., Latinne, A., Michaux, J. & Ribas, A. (2015) Global parasite and Rattus rodent invasions: The consequences for rodent-borne diseases. Integrative Zoology, 10, 409-423.

Pathogen community composition and co-infection patterns in a wild community of rodentsJessica Lee Abbate, Maxime Galan, Maria Razzauti, Tarja Sironen, Liina Voutilainen, Heikki Henttonen, Patrick Gasqui, Jean-François Cosson, Nathalie Charbonnel<p style="text-align: justify;">Rodents are major reservoirs of pathogens that can cause disease in humans and livestock. It is therefore important to know what pathogens naturally circulate in rodent populations, and to understand the factors tha...Biodiversity, Coexistence, Community ecology, Eco-immunology & Immunity, Epidemiology, Host-parasite interactions, Population ecology, Species distributionsFrancois Massol2020-02-11 12:42:28 View
19 Dec 2020
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Hough transform implementation to evaluate the morphological variability of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia spp.)

A new member of the morphometrics jungle to better monitor vulnerable lagoons

Recommended by based on reviews by Julien Claude and 1 anonymous reviewer

In the recent years, morphometrics, the quantitative description of shape and its covariation [1] gained considerable momentum in evolutionary ecology. Using the form of organisms to describe, classify and try to understand their diversity can be traced back at least to Aristotle. More recently, two successive revolutions rejuvenated this idea [1–3]: first, a proper mathematical refoundation of the theory of shape, then a technical revolution in the apparatus able to acquire raw data. By using a feature extraction method and planning its massive use on data acquired by aerial drones, the study by Lacaux and colleagues [4] retraces this curse of events.
The radial symmetry of Aurelia spp. jelly fish, a common species complex, is affected by stress and more largely by environmental variations, such as pollution exposition. Aurelia spp. normally present four gonads so that the proportion of non-tetramerous individuals in a population has been proposed as a biomarker [5,6].
In this study, the authors implemented the Hough transform to largely automate the detection of the gonads in Aurelia spp. Such use of the Hough transform, a long-used approach to identify shapes through edge detection, is new to morphometrics. Here, the Aurelia spp. gonads are identified as ellipses from which aspect descriptors can be derived, and primarily counted and thus can be used to quantify the proportion of individuals presenting body plans disorders.

The sample sizes studied here were too low to allow finer-grained ecophysiological investigations. That being said, the proof-of-concept is convincing and this paper paths the way for an operational and innovative approach to the ecological monitoring of sensible aquatic ecosystems.


[1] Kendall, D. G. (1989). A survey of the statistical theory of shape. Statistical Science, 87-99. doi:
[2] Rohlf, F. J., and Marcus, L. F. (1993). A revolution morphometrics. Trends in ecology & evolution, 8(4), 129-132. doi:
[3] Adams, D. C., Rohlf, F. J., and Slice, D. E. (2004). Geometric morphometrics: ten years of progress following the ‘revolution’. Italian Journal of Zoology, 71(1), 5-16. doi:
[4] Lacaux, C., Desolneux, A., Gadreaud, J., Martin-Garin, B. and Thiéry, A. (2020) Hough transform implementation to evaluate the morphological variability of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia spp.). bioRxiv, 2020.03.11.986984, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology. doi:
[5] Gershwin, L. A. (1999). Clonal and population variation in jellyfish symmetry. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 79(6), 993-1000. doi:
[6] Gadreaud, J., Martin-Garin, B., Artells, E., Levard, C., Auffan, M., Barkate, A.-L. and Thiéry, A. (2017) The moon jellyfish as a new bioindicator: impact of silver nanoparticles on the morphogenesis. In: Mariottini GL, editor. Jellyfish: ecology, distribution patterns and human interactions. Nova Science Publishers; 2017. pp. 277–292.

Hough transform implementation to evaluate the morphological variability of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia spp.)Céline Lacaux, Agnès Desolneux, Justine Gadreaud, Bertrand Martin-Garin and Alain Thiéry<p>Variations of the animal body plan morphology and morphometry can be used as prognostic tools of their habitat quality. The potential of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia spp.) as a new model organism has been poorly tested. However, as a tetramerous...MorphometricsVincent Bonhomme2020-03-18 17:40:51 View
11 Mar 2021
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Size-dependent eco-evolutionary feedbacks in fisheries

“Hidden” natural selection and the evolution of body size in harvested stocks

Recommended by based on reviews by Jean-François Arnoldi and 1 anonymous reviewer

Humans are exploiting biological resources since thousands of years. Exploitation of biological resources has become particularly intense since the beginning of the 20th century and the steep increase in the worldwide human population size. Marine and freshwater fishes are not exception to that rule, and they have been (and continue to be) strongly harvested as a source of proteins for humans. For some species, fishery has been so intense that natural stocks have virtually collapsed in only a few decades. The worst example begin that of the Northwest Atlantic cod that has declined by more than 95% of its historical biomasses in only 20-30 years of intensive exploitation (Frank et al. 2005). These rapid and steep changes in biomasses have huge impacts on the entire ecosystems since species targeted by fisheries are often at the top of trophic chains (Frank et al. 2005). 

Beyond demographic impacts, fisheries also have evolutionary impacts on populations, which can also indirectly alter ecosystems (Uusi-Heikkilä et al. 2015; Palkovacs et al. 2018). Fishermen generally focus on the largest specimens, and hence exert a strong selective pressure against these largest fish (which is called “harvest selection”). There is now ample evidence that harvest selection can lead to rapid evolutionary changes in natural populations toward small individuals (Kuparinen & Festa-Bianchet 2017). These evolutionary changes are of course undesirable from a human perspective, and have attracted many scientific questions. Nonetheless, the consequence of harvest selection is not always observable in natural populations, and there are cases in which no phenotypic change (or on the contrary an increase in mean body size) has been observed after intense harvest pressures. In a conceptual Essay, Edeline and Loeuille (Edeline & Loeuille 2020) propose novel ideas to explain why the evolutionary consequences of harvest selection can be so diverse, and how a cross talk between ecological and evolutionary dynamics can explain patterns observed in natural stocks.

 The general and novel concept proposed by Edeline and Loeuille is actually as old as Darwin’s book; The Origin of Species (Darwin 1859). It is based on the simple idea that natural selection acting on harvested populations can actually be strong, and counter-balance (or on the contrary reinforce) the evolutionary consequence of harvest selection. Although simple, the idea that natural and harvest selection are jointly shaping contemporary evolution of exploited populations lead to various and sometimes complex scenarios that can (i) explain unresolved empirical patterns and (ii) refine predictions regarding the long-term viability of exploited populations. 

The Edeline and Loeuille’s crafty inspiration is that natural selection acting on exploited populations is itself an indirect consequence of harvest (Edeline & Loeuille 2020). They suggest that, by modifying the size structure of populations (a key parameter for ecological interactions), harvest indirectly alters interactions between populations and their biotic environment through competition and predation, which changes the ecological theatre and hence the selective pressures acting back to populations. They named this process “size-dependent eco-evolutionary feedback loops” and develop several scenarios in which these feedback loops ultimately deviate the evolutionary outcome of harvest selection from expectation. The scenarios they explore are based on strong theoretical knowledge, and range from simple ones in which a single species (the harvest species) is evolving to more complex (and realistic) ones in which multiple (e.g. the harvest species and its prey) species are co-evolving.

I will not come into the details of each scenario here, and I will let the readers (re-)discovering the complex beauty of biological life and natural selection. Nonetheless, I will emphasize the importance of considering these eco-evolutionary processes altogether to fully grasp the response of exploited populations. Edeline and Loeuille convincingly demonstrate that reduced body size due to harvest selection is obviously not the only response of exploited fish populations when natural selection is jointly considered (Edeline & Loeuille 2020). On the contrary, they show that –under some realistic ecological circumstances relaxing exploitative competition due to reduced population densities- natural selection can act antagonistically, and hence favour stable body size in exploited populations. Although this seems further desirable from a human perspective than a downsizing of exploited populations, it is actually mere window dressing as Edeline and Loeuille further showed that this response is accompanied by an erosion of the evolvability –and hence a lowest probability of long-term persistence- of these exploited populations.

Humans, by exploiting biological resources, are breaking the relative equilibrium of complex entities, and the response of populations to this disturbance is itself often complex and heterogeneous. In this Essay, Edeline and Loeuille provide –under simple terms- the theoretical and conceptual bases required to improve predictions regarding the evolutionary responses of natural populations to exploitation by humans (Edeline & Loeuille 2020). An important next step will be to generate data and methods allowing confronting the empirical reality to these novel concepts (e.g. (Monk et al. 2021), so as to identify the most likely evolutionary scenarios sustaining biological responses of exploited populations, and hence to set the best management plans for the long-term sustainability of these populations.


Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. John Murray, London.

Edeline, E. & Loeuille, N. (2021) Size-dependent eco-evolutionary feedbacks in fisheries. bioRxiv, 2020.04.03.022905, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi:

Frank, K.T., Petrie, B., Choi, J. S. & Leggett, W.C. (2005). Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem. Science, 308, 1621–1623. doi:

Kuparinen, A. & Festa-Bianchet, M. (2017). Harvest-induced evolution: insights from aquatic and terrestrial systems. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci., 372, 20160036. doi:

Monk, C.T., Bekkevold, D., Klefoth, T., Pagel, T., Palmer, M. & Arlinghaus, R. (2021). The battle between harvest and natural selection creates small and shy fish. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 118, e2009451118. doi: 

Palkovacs, E.P., Moritsch, M.M., Contolini, G.M. & Pelletier, F. (2018). Ecology of harvest-driven trait changes and implications for ecosystem management. Front. Ecol. Environ., 16, 20–28. doi:

Uusi-Heikkilä, S., Whiteley, A.R., Kuparinen, A., Matsumura, S., Venturelli, P.A., Wolter, C., et al. (2015). The evolutionary legacy of size-selective harvesting extends from genes to populations. Evol. Appl., 8, 597–620. doi:

Size-dependent eco-evolutionary feedbacks in fisheriesEric Edeline and Nicolas Loeuille<p>Harvesting may drive body downsizing along with population declines and decreased harvesting yields. These changes are commonly construed as direct consequences of harvest selection, where small-bodied, early-reproducing individuals are immedia...Biodiversity, Community ecology, Competition, Eco-evolutionary dynamics, Evolutionary ecology, Food webs, Interaction networks, Life history, Population ecology, Theoretical ecologySimon Blanchet2020-04-03 16:14:05 View
13 Jul 2020
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Preregistration - The effect of dominance rank on female reproductive success in social mammals

Why are dominant females not always showing higher reproductive success? A preregistration of a meta-analysis on social mammals

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Bonaventura Majolo and 1 anonymous reviewer

In social species conflicts among group members typically lead to the formation of dominance hierarchies with dominant individuals outcompeting other groups members and, in some extreme cases, suppressing reproduction of subordinates. It has therefore been typically assumed that dominant individuals have a higher breeding success than subordinates. However, previous work on mammals (mostly primates) revealed high variation, with some populations showing no evidence for a link between female dominance reproductive success, and a meta-analysis on primates suggests that the strength of this relationship is stronger for species with a longer lifespan [1]. Therefore, there is now a need to understand 1) whether dominance and reproductive success are generally associated across social mammals (and beyond) and 2) which factors explains the variation in the strength (and possibly direction) of this relationship.
In their preregistration, Shivani et al. [2] plan to perform a meta-analysis on 86 social mammal species to address these two points. More specifically, they will investigate whether the relationship between female dominance and reproductive success vary according to life history traits (e.g. stronger for species with large litter size), ecological conditions (e.g. stronger when resources are limited) and the social environment (e.g. stronger for cooperative breeders than for plural breeders).
The two reviewers and I were particularly positive and enthusiastic about this preregistration and only had minor comments that were nicely addressed by the authors. We found the background well-grounded in the existing literature and that the predictions were therefore clear and well-motivated. The methods were particularly transparent with a nicely annotated R script and the authors even simulated a dataset with the same structure as the actual data in order to make sure that the coding of the data handling and statistical analyses were appropriate (without being tempted to look at model outputs from the true dataset).
Perhaps one limitation to keep in mind once we will have the chance to look at the outcome of this study if that the dataset may not be fully representative of social species with dominance hierarchies. For example, the current dataset contains only one aquatic mammal (Mirounga angustirostris) as far as I can see, which is likely due to a lack of knowledge on such systems. Furthermore, not only mammals exhibit dominance hierarchies and it will be interesting to see if the results of the proposed study hold for other social taxa (and if not, what may explain their differences).
That being said, the proposed study will already offer a much broader overview of the relationship between dominance and reproductive success in animal societies and a better understanding for its variation. The reviewers and I believe it will make an important contribution to the fields of socio-ecology and evolutionary ecology. I therefore strongly recommend this preregistration and we are particularly looking forward to seeing the outcome of this exciting study.


[1] Majolo, B., Lehmann, J., de Bortoli Vizioli, A., & Schino, G. (2012). Fitness‐related benefits of dominance in primates. American journal of physical anthropology, 147(4), 652-660. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22031
[2] Shivani, Huchard, E., Lukas, D. (2020). Preregistration - The effect of dominance rank on female reproductive success in social mammals In principle acceptance by PCI Ecology of the version 1.2 on 07 July 2020.

Preregistration - The effect of dominance rank on female reproductive success in social mammalsShivani, Elise Huchard, Dieter Lukas<p>Life in social groups, while potentially providing social benefits, inevitably leads to conflict among group members. In many social mammals, such conflicts lead to the formation of dominance hierarchies, where high-ranking individuals consiste...Behaviour & Ethology, Meta-analyses, Preregistrations, Social structure, ZoologyMatthieu Paquet Bonaventura Majolo, Anonymous2020-04-06 17:42:37 View
12 Oct 2020
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Insect herbivory on urban trees: Complementary effects of tree neighbours and predation

Tree diversity is associated with reduced herbivory in urban forest

Recommended by and based on reviews by Ian Pearse and Freerk Molleman

Urban ecology, the study of ecological systems in our increasingly urbanized world, is crucial to planning and redesigning cities to enhance ecosystem services (Kremer et al. 2016), human health and well-being and further conservation goals (Dallimer et al. 2012). Urban trees are a crucial component of urban streets and parks that provide shade and cooling through evapotranspiration (Fung and Jim 2019), improve air quality (Lai and Kontokosta 2019), help control storm water (Johnson and Handel 2016), and conserve wildlife (Herrmann et al. 2012; de Andrade et al. 2020).
Ideally, management of urban forests strikes a balance between maintaining the health of urban trees while retaining those organisms, such as herbivores, that connect a tree to the urban ecosystem. Herbivory by arthropods can substantially affect tree growth and reproduction (Whittaker and Warrington 1985), and so understanding factors that influence herbivory in urban forests is important to effective management. At the same time, herbivorous arthropods are important as key components of urban bird diets (Airola and Greco 2019) and provide a backyard glimpse at forest ecosystems in an increasingly built environment (Pearse 2019). Maintenance of arthropod predators may be one way to retain arthropods in urban forests while keeping detrimental outbreaks of herbivores in check. In “Insect herbivory on urban trees: Complementary effects of tree neighbors and predation” Stemmelen and colleagues (Stemmelen et al. 2020) use a clever sampling design to show that insect herbivory decreases as the diversity of neighboring trees increased. By placing artificial larvae out on trees, they provide evidence that increased predation in higher diversity urban forest patches might drive patterns in herbivory. The paper also demonstrates the importance of tree species identity in determining leaf herbivory.
The implications of this research for urban foresters is that deliberately planting diverse urban forests will help manage insect herbivores and should thus improve tree health. Potential knock-on effects could be seen for the ecosystem services provided by urban forests. While it might be tempting to simply plant more of the species that are subject to low current rates of herbivory, other research on the long-term vulnerability of monocultures to attack by specialist pathogens and herbivores (Tooker and Frank 2012) cautions against such an approach. Furthermore, the importance of urban forest insects to birds, including migrating birds, argues for managing urban forests more holistically (Greco and Airola 2018).
Stemmelen et al. (2020) used an observational approach focused on urban forests in Montreal, Canada in their research. Their findings suggest follow-up research focused on a broader cross-section of urban forests across latitudes, as well as experimental research. Experiments could, for example, exclude avian predators with netting (e.g. (Marquis and Whelan 1994)) to evaluate the relative importance of birds to managing urban insects on trees, as well as the flip side of that equation, the important to birds of insects on urban trees.
In summary, Stemmelen and colleague’s manuscript illustrates clever sampling and use of observational data to infer broader ecological patterns. It is worth reading to better understand the role of diversity in driving plant-insect community interactions and given the implications of the findings for sustainable long-term management of urban forests.


Airola, D. and Greco, S. (2019). Birds and oaks in California’s urban forest. Int. Oaks, 30, 109–116.
de Andrade, A.C., Medeiros, S. and Chiarello, A.G. (2020). City sloths and marmosets in Atlantic forest fragments with contrasting levels of anthropogenic disturbance. Mammal Res., 65, 481–491. doi:
Dallimer, M., Irvine, K.N., Skinner, A.M.J., Davies, Z.G., Rouquette, J.R., Maltby, L.L., et al. (2012). Biodiversity and the Feel-Good Factor: Understanding Associations between Self-Reported Human Well-being and Species Richness. Bioscience, 62, 47–55. doi:
Fung, C.K.W. and Jim, C.Y. (2019). Microclimatic resilience of subtropical woodlands and urban-forest benefits. Urban For. Urban Green., 42, 100–112. doi:
Greco, S.E. and Airola, D.A. (2018). The importance of native valley oaks (Quercus lobata) as stopover habitat for migratory songbirds in urban Sacramento, California, USA. Urban For. Urban Green., 29, 303–311. doi:
Herrmann, D.L., Pearse, I.S. and Baty, J.H. (2012). Drivers of specialist herbivore diversity across 10 cities. Landsc. Urban Plan., 108, 123–130. doi:
Johnson, L.R. and Handel, S.N. (2016). Restoration treatments in urban park forests drive long-term changes in vegetation trajectories. Ecol. Appl., 26, 940–956. doi:
Kremer, P., Hamstead, Z., Haase, D., McPhearson, T., Frantzeskaki, N., Andersson, E., et al. (2016). Key insights for the future of urban ecosystem services research. Ecol. Soc., 21: 29. doi:
Lai, Y. and Kontokosta, C.E. (2019). The impact of urban street tree species on air quality and respiratory illness: A spatial analysis of large-scale, high-resolution urban data. Heal. Place, 56, 80–87. doi:
Marquis, R.J. and Whelan, C.J. (1994). Insectivorous birds increase growth of white oak through consumption of leaf-chewing insects. Ecology, 75, 2007–2014. doi:
Pearse, I.S. (2019). Insect herbivores on urban native oak trees. Int. Oaks, 30, 101–108.
Stemmelen, A., Paquette, A., Benot, M.-L., Kadiri, Y., Jactel, H. and Castagneyrol, B. (2020) Insect herbivory on urban trees: Complementary effects of tree neighbours and predation. bioRxiv, 2020.04.15.042317, ver. 5 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi:
Tooker, J. F., and Frank, S. D. (2012). Genotypically diverse cultivar mixtures for insect pest management and increased crop yields. J. Appl. Ecol., 49(5), 974-985. doi:
Whittaker, J.B. and Warrington, S. (1985). An experimental field study of different levels of insect herbivory induced By Formica rufa predation on Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) III. Effects on Tree Growth. J. Appl. Ecol., 22, 797. doi:

Insect herbivory on urban trees: Complementary effects of tree neighbours and predationAlex Stemmelen, Alain Paquette, Marie-Lise Benot, Yasmine Kadiri, Hervé Jactel, Bastien Castagneyrol<p>Insect herbivory is an important component of forest ecosystems functioning and can affect tree growth and survival. Tree diversity is known to influence insect herbivory in natural forest, with most studies reporting a decrease in herbivory wi...Biodiversity, Biological control, Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, HerbivoryRuth Arabelle Hufbauer2020-04-20 13:49:36 View
06 Oct 2020
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Implementing a rapid geographic range expansion - the role of behavior and habitat changes

The role of behavior and habitat availability on species geographic expansion

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Caroline Marie Jeanne Yvonne Nieberding, Pizza Ka Yee Chow, Tim Parker and 1 anonymous reviewer

Understanding the relative importance of species-specific traits and environmental factors in modulating species distributions is an intriguing question in ecology [1]. Both behavioral flexibility (i.e., the ability to change the behavior in changing circumstances) and habitat availability are known to influence the ability of a species to expand its geographic range [2,3]. However, the role of each factor is context and species dependent and more information is needed to understand how these two factors interact. In this pre-registration, Logan et al. [4] explain how they will use Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), a species with a flexible behavior and a rapid geographic range expansion, to evaluate the relative role of habitat and behavior as drivers of the species’ expansion [4]. The authors present very clear hypotheses, predicted results and also include alternative predictions. The rationales for all the hypotheses are clearly stated, and the methodology (data and analyses plans) are described with detail. The large amount of information already collected by the authors for the studied species during previous projects warrants the success of this study. It is also remarkable that the authors will make all their data available in a public repository, and that the pre-registration in already stored in GitHub, supporting open access and reproducible science. I agree with the three reviewers of this pre-registration about its value and I think its quality has largely improved during the review process. Thus, I am happy to recommend it and I am looking forward to seeing the results.


[1] Gaston KJ. 2003. The structure and dynamics of geographic ranges. Oxford series in Ecology and Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York.

[2] Sol D, Lefebvre L. 2000. Behavioural flexibility predicts invasion success in birds introduced to new zealand. Oikos. 90(3): 599–605.

[3] Hanski I, Gilpin M. 1991. Metapopulation dynamics: Brief history and conceptual domain. Biological journal of the Linnean Society. 42(1-2): 3–16.

[4] Logan CJ, McCune KB, Chen N, Lukas D. 2020. Implementing a rapid geographic range expansion - the role of behavior and habitat changes ( In principle acceptance by PCI Ecology of the version on 16 Dec 2021

Implementing a rapid geographic range expansion - the role of behavior and habitat changesLogan CJ, McCune KB, Chen N, Lukas D<p>It is generally thought that behavioral flexibility, the ability to change behavior when circumstances change, plays an important role in the ability of a species to rapidly expand their geographic range (e.g., Lefebvre et al. (1997), Griffin a...Behaviour & Ethology, Biological invasions, Dispersal & Migration, Foraging, Habitat selection, Human impact, Phenotypic plasticity, Preregistrations, ZoologyEsther Sebastián GonzálezAnonymous, Caroline Marie Jeanne Yvonne Nieberding, Tim Parker2020-05-14 11:18:57 View
21 Oct 2020
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Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate change

Uncertain predictions of species responses to perturbations lead to underestimate changes at ecosystem level in diverse systems

Recommended by based on reviews by Carlos Melian and 1 anonymous reviewer

Different sources of uncertainty are known to affect our ability to predict ecological dynamics (Petchey et al. 2015). However, the consequences of uncertainty on prediction biases have been less investigated, especially when predictions are scaled up to higher levels of organisation as is commonly done in ecology for instance. The study of Orr et al. (2020) addresses this issue. It shows that, in complex systems, the uncertainty of unbiased predictions at a lower level of organisation (e.g. species level) leads to a bias towards underestimation of change at higher level of organisation (e.g. ecosystem level). This bias is strengthened by larger uncertainty and by higher dimensionality of the system.
This general result has large implications for many fields of science, from economics to energy supply or demography. In ecology, as discussed in this study, these results imply that the uncertainty of predictions of species’ change increases the probability of underestimation of changes of diversity and stability at community and ecosystem levels, especially when species richness is high. The uncertainty of predictions of species’ change also increases the probability of underestimation of change when multiple ecosystem functions are considered at once, or when the combined effect of multiple stressors is considered.
The consequences of species diversity on ecosystem functions and stability have received considerable attention during the last decades (e.g. Cardinale et al. 2012, Kéfi et al. 2019). However, since the bias towards underestimation of change increases with species diversity, future studies will need to investigate how the general statistical effect outlined by Orr et al. might affect our understanding of the well-known relationships between species diversity and ecosystem functioning and stability in response to perturbations.


Cardinale BJ, Duffy JE, Gonzalez A, Hooper DU, Perrings C, Venail P, Narwani A, Mace GM, Tilman D, Wardle DA, Kinzig AP, Daily GC, Loreau M, Grace JB, Larigauderie A, Srivastava DS, Naeem S (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486, 59–67.
Kéfi S, Domínguez‐García V, Donohue I, Fontaine C, Thébault E, Dakos V (2019) Advancing our understanding of ecological stability. Ecology Letters, 22, 1349–1356.
Orr JA, Piggott JJ, Jackson A, Arnoldi J-F (2020) Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate change. bioRxiv, 2020.05.26.117200.
Petchey OL, Pontarp M, Massie TM, Kéfi S, Ozgul A, Weilenmann M, Palamara GM, Altermatt F, Matthews B, Levine JM, Childs DZ, McGill BJ, Schaepman ME, Schmid B, Spaak P, Beckerman AP, Pennekamp F, Pearse IS (2015) The ecological forecast horizon, and examples of its uses and determinants. Ecology Letters, 18, 597–611.

Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate changeJames Orr, Jeremy Piggott, Andrew Jackson, Jean-François Arnoldi<p>Uncertainty is an irreducible part of predictive science, causing us to over- or underestimate the magnitude of change that a system of interest will face. In a reductionist approach, we may use predictions at the level of individual system com...Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, Theoretical ecologyElisa ThebaultAnonymous2020-06-02 15:41:12 View
30 Sep 2020
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How citizen science could improve Species Distribution Models and their independent assessment

Citizen science contributes to SDM validation

Recommended by based on reviews by Maria Angeles Perez-Navarro and 1 anonymous reviewer

Citizen science is becoming an important piece for the acquisition of scientific knowledge in the fields of natural sciences, and particularly in the inventory and monitoring of biodiversity (McKinley et al. 2017). The information generated with the collaboration of citizens has an evident importance in conservation, by providing information on the state of populations and habitats, helping in mitigation and restoration actions, and very importantly contributing to involve society in conservation (Brown and Williams 2019). An obvious advantage of these initiatives is the ability to mobilize human resources on a large territorial scale and in the medium term, which would otherwise be difficult to finance. The resulting increasing information then can be processed with advanced computational techniques (Hochachka et al 2012; Kelling et al. 2015), thus improving our interpretation of the distribution of species. Specifically, the ability to obtain information on a large territorial scale can be integrated into studies based on Species Distribution Models SDMs. One of the common problems with SDMs is that they often work from species occurrences that have been opportunistically recorded, either by professionals or amateurs. A great challenge for data obtained from non-professional citizens, however, remains to ensure its standardization and quality (Kosmala et al. 2016). This requires a clear and effective design, solid volunteer training, and a high level of coordination that turns out to be complex (Brown and Williams 2019). Finally, it is essential to perform a quality validation following scientifically recognized standards, since they are often conditioned by errors and biases in obtaining information (Bird et al. 2014). There are two basic approaches to obtain the necessary data for this validation: getting it from an external source (external validation), or allocating a part of the database itself (internal validation or cross-validation) to this function.
Matutini et al. (2020) in his work 'How citizen science could improve Species Distribution Models and their independent assessment' shows a novel application of the data generated by a citizen science initiative ('Un Dragon dans mon Jardin') by providing an external source for the validation of SDMs, as a tool to construct habitat suitability maps for nine species of amphibians in western France. Importantly, 'Un Dragon dans mon Jardin' contains standardized presence-absence data, the approximation recognized as the most robust (Guisan, et al. 2017). The SDMs to be validated, in turn, were based on opportunistic information obtained by citizens and professionals. The result shows the usefulness of this external data source by minimizing the overestimation of model accuracy that is obtained with cross-validation with the internal evaluation dataset. It also shows the importance of properly filtering the information obtained by citizens by determining the threshold of sampling effort.
The destiny of citizen science is to be integrated into the complex world of science. Supported by the increasing level of the formation of society, it is becoming a fundamental piece in the scientific system dedicated to the study of biodiversity and its conservation. After funding for scientists specialized in the recognition of biodiversity has been cut back, we are seeing a transformation of the activity of these scientists towards the design, coordination, training and verification of programs for the acquisition of field information obtained by citizens. A main goal is that a substantial part of this information will eventually get integrated into the scientific system, and rigorous verification process a fundamental element for such purpose, as shown by Matutini et al. (2020) work.


[1] Bird TJ et al. (2014) Statistical solutions for error and bias in global citizen science datasets. Biological Conservation 173: 144-154. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2013.07.037
[2] Brown ED and Williams BK (2019) The potential for citizen science to produce reliable and useful information in ecology. Conservation Biology 33: 561-569. doi: 10.1111/cobi.13223
[3] Guisan A, Thuiller W and Zimmermann N E (2017) Habitat Suitability and Distribution Models: With Applications in R. The University of Chicago Press. doi: 10.1017/9781139028271
[4] Hochachka WM, Fink D, Hutchinson RA, Sheldon D, Wong WK and Kelling S (2012) Data-intensive science applied to broad-scale citizen science. Trens Ecol Evol 27: 130-137. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.11.006
[5] Kelling S, Fink D, La Sorte FA, Johnston A, Bruns NE and Hochachka WM (2015) Taking a ‘Big Data’ approach to data quality in a citizen science project. Ambio 44(Supple. 4):S601-S611. doi: 10.1007/s13280-015-0710-4
[6] Kosmala M, Wiggins A, Swanson A and Simmons B (2016) Assessing data quality in citizen science. Front Ecol Environ 14: 551–560. doi: 10.1002/fee.1436
[7] Matutini F, Baudry J, Pain G, Sineau M and Pithon J (2020) How citizen science could improve Species Distribution Models and their independent assessment. bioRxiv, 2020.06.02.129536, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi: 10.1101/2020.06.02.129536
[8] McKinley DC et al. (2017) Citizen science can improve conservation science, natural resource management, and environmental protection. Biological Conservation 208:15-28. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.05.015

How citizen science could improve Species Distribution Models and their independent assessmentFlorence Matutini, Jacques Baudry, Guillaume Pain, Morgane Sineau, Josephine Pithon<p>Species distribution models (SDM) have been increasingly developed in recent years but their validity is questioned. Their assessment can be improved by the use of independent data but this can be difficult to obtain and prohibitive to collect....Biodiversity, Biogeography, Conservation biology, Habitat selection, Spatial ecology, Metacommunities & Metapopulations, Species distributions, Statistical ecologyFrancisco Lloret2020-06-03 09:36:34 View