The characteristic time of ecological communities

Ontiveros, Vicente J.Capitán, José A.Casamayor, Emilio O. Alonso, David.  Ecology : doi:10.1002/ecy.3247 (2020)  DIGITAL CSIC

A simple description of temporal dynamics of ecological communities may help us understand how community assembly proceeds, predict ecological responses to environmental disturbances, and improve the performance of biological conservation actions. Although community changes take place at multiple temporal scales, the variation of species composition and richness over time across communities and habitats shows general patterns that may potentially reveal the main drivers of community dynamics. We used the simplest stochastic model of Island Biogeography to propose two quantities to characterize community dynamics: the community characteristic time, as a measure of the typical time scale of species richness change, and (ii) the characteristic Jaccard index, as a measure of temporal β diversity, i.e., the variation of community composition over time. In addition, the community characteristic time, which sets the temporal scale at which null, non‐interacting species assemblages operate, allowed us to define a relative sampling frequency (to the characteristic time). Here we estimate these quantities across microbial and macroscopic species assemblages to highlight two related results. First, we illustrated both characteristic time and Jaccard index and their relation with classic time‐series in ecology, and found that the most thoroughly sampled communities, relative to their characteristic time, presented the largest similarity between consecutive samples. Second, our analysis across a variety of habitats and taxa show that communities span a large range of species turnover, from potentially very fast (short characteristic times) to rather slow (long characteristic times) communities. This was in agreement with previous knowledge, but indicated that some habitats may have been sampled less frequently than required. Our work provides new perspectives to explore the temporal component in ecological studies and highlights the usefulness of simple approximations to the complex dynamics of ecological communities.