Biodiversity change under adaptive community dynamics

Tadhg Carroll*, Françoise Cardou, Maria Dornelas, Chris D Thomas, Mark Vellend

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

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Compositional change is a ubiquitous response of ecological communities to environmental drivers of global change, but is often regarded as evidence of declining “biotic integrity” relative to historical baselines. Adaptive compositional change, however, is a foundational idea in evolutionary biology, whereby changes in gene frequencies within species boost population-level fitness, allowing populations to persist as the environment changes. Here, we present an analogous idea for ecological communities based on core concepts of fitness and selection. Changes in community composition (i.e., frequencies of genetic differences among species) in response to environmental change should normally increase the average fitness of community members. We refer to compositional changes that improve the functional match, or “fit,” between organisms' traits and their environment as adaptive community dynamics. Environmental change (e.g., land-use change) commonly reduces the fit between antecedent communities and new environments. Subsequent change in community composition in response to environmental changes, however, should normally increase community-level fit, as the success of at least some constituent species increases. We argue that adaptive community dynamics are likely to improve or maintain ecosystem function (e.g., by maintaining productivity). Adaptive community responses may simultaneously produce some changes that are considered societally desirable (e.g., increased carbon storage) and others that are undesirable (e.g., declines of certain species), just as evolutionary responses within species may be deemed desirable (e.g., evolutionary rescue of an endangered species) or undesirable (e.g., enhanced virulence of an agricultural pest). When assessing possible management interventions, it is important to distinguish between drivers of environmental change (e.g., undesired climate warming) and adaptive community responses, which may generate some desirable outcomes. Efforts to facilitate, accept, or resist ecological change require separate consideration of drivers and responses, and may highlight the need to reconsider preferences for historical baseline communities over communities that are better adapted to the new conditions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number16680
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Change Biology
VolumeEarly View
Early online date12 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Apr 2023


  • Species turnover
  • Anthropocene environments
  • Community ecology
  • Adaptive dynamics
  • Ecosystem function
  • Environmental change


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