Over dessert the other night my grandmother asked me “So, is a lizard a lizard a lizard?” This deceptively important question is a great place to start this next blog iteration because I’m grappling with that very question in my research right now. Let me give you a bit of background on the question, why I think it’s important, and how I’m planning on going about finding an answer.
Historically, most ecologists have largely focused their research and careers on pointing out the unique features of their study organism or system.* This, of course, makes a lot of sense. Self promotion is critical to gaining grants and recognition for work and it’s important for a researcher to carve out an intellectual niche they can claim for themselves. The downside is that from this perspective the world starts looking like a collection of highly localized special cases where differences overwhelm similarities. As ecologists are increasingly called upon to inform conservation, this perspective leads to a dead end for predictions about decisions affecting poorly-studied ecosystems. This is a real problem for conservation because, if each habitat is a special case, we’d have to thoroughly investigate each component of that ecosystem before implementing effective management policies. In the face of the rapid pace of ecological degradation and destruction, this isn’t going to work.
I am more interested in studying the similarities among organisms and ecosystems, not their differences. Where some see unique features that separate a species from all others globally, I see organisms filling very similar roles in fundamentally similar ways. This perspective is at the heart of a growing field called, functional ecology.
Functional ecology used to be the domain of botanists, but the utility of this perspective is leading to it increasingly being applied to animals and to questions about whole-ecosystem conservation and management. At the core of functional ecology is the question: What role does this organism play in the function of this ecosystem? Where function refers to the basic processes and patterns that characterize that ecosystem, processes such as nutrient cycling, soil creation or patterns like patch heterogeneity. Now that got a bit jargony (I’ve attached wikipedia pages if you’re interested in learning more) but the idea of functional roles essentially comes down to “How does this ecosystem work and where does this organism fit in?”
This argument is the premise of the first chapter of my dissertation and I’ll be applying the question to lizards. To do so I am surveying the variety of functional roles lizards play in mediterranean ecosystems (because using all the world’s lizards at this stage was too big a task for starters) and then testing to see whether unrelated lizard species, in very different geographical areas, end up converging on similar functional roles. I’ll definitely keep you posted on the actual results once I get them together!
There is wonderful, beautiful, exciting, mind-boggling diversity all over the world and I relish it, but focusing on the differences that diversity represents is going to hamper our conservation efforts. By reducing that complexity to fundamental functions in an ecosystem, I believe we will find that in fact ecosystems tend to work in pretty similar ways and thus, with some careful work, we may be able to gather a predictive understanding of the implications of management decisions in even un-studied ecosystems. So, while others would answer the question “Is a lizard just a lizard” with an emphatic no. I’d answer, “Functionally, maybe yes.”
*This is my opinion, and while there are certainly many notable exceptions to this trend, I think the trend is nonetheless widespread.