Special Features

Read the latest Special Features from Journal of Ecology:

Whether in life or in death: fresh perspectives on how plants affect biogeochemical cycling
Guest Editors: Amy T. Austin Amy E. Zanne
Special Feature in Volume 103, Issue 6
Biogeochemical cycling traces the pathways by which elements pass through both biotic and abiotic steps on their journeys between the earth and the atmosphere. Plants are a critical step in this process for many elements; however, traditional biogeochemistry views typically take a top down approach, treating plants as a ‘green box’ and failing to appreciate the rich texture provided by how different plant species control the rates and forms of elemental cycling.

In this Special Feature (“Whether in Life or Death: fresh perspectives on how plants affect biogeochemical cycling”), on both land and in the sea, we highlight a series of studies in which the researchers explore from the bottom up how plants influence biogeochemical cycles. Papers by Litchman et al. (2015) and Stepien (2015) focus on the diversity and functioning of phytoplankton and macrophytes in the oceans, including plant traits and specialized carbon-concentrating mechanisms. Templer et al. (2015) and Araujo and Austin (2015) examine how conifer canopies allow for direct resource uptake from the atmosphere and light attenuation altering photodegradation of litter on the ground. Zanne et al. (2015) continue to focus on plant controls on rates of tissue decay by microbes in wood, while Borer et al. (2015) manipulate foliar pest and pathogen communities in grasslands to determine shifts in leaf stoichiometry. Going belowground, both Moore et al. (2015) and Midgley, Brzostek, and Phillips (2015) look at the role of microbes and roots to determine soil and litter chemical dynamics. These 8 studies provide fresh perspective on the critical role of plants in creating the world we find around us and responding to the world we are creating for them.

Eco-evolutionary dynamics in plants: interactive processes at overlapping timescales and their implications
Guest Editors: Richard P. Shefferson and Roberto Salguero-Gómez
Special Feature in Volume 103, Issue 4
Since Darwin, evolution has been assumed to work too slowly to be observed directly. However considerable evidence has built up showing that evolution is often so quick as to have strong, perceptible impacts on the natural world at timescales conducive to ecological study. How does this understanding of evolution as a rapid process capable of altering ecological processes affect our understanding of plant ecology?

This Special Feature includes cutting-edge research exploring the impacts of rapid evolution and the convergence of ecological and evolutionary time. Key themes include the role of density, and the impacts of genetic variation across populations and communities. Lamit et al. (2015) show that genetic variation in ecologically relevant traits correlates across populations within communities, leading to the possibility that evolution in one species can cascade through to others. Metcalf et al. (2015) explore the role of adaptive plasticity in eco-evolutionary dynamics, and also assess the important role that density plays. Shaw et al. (2015) show that inbreeding, and hence the population structure of genetic variability, influences the extent to which evolution and population dynamics interact. Utsumi (2015) shows that as feeding preferences evolve, both plant and herbivore densities change, impacting the further evolution of feeding preference. Williams et al. (2015) explore the role of rapid evolution and demographic response to climate change. We also have an editorial that explores where plants fit in, and where eco-evolutionary dynamics research needs to go in the future (Shefferson & Salguero-Gómez 2015).

This Special Feature shows that evolution is an important process in ecology. Indeed, we believe that methods in ecological and evolutionary analysis need to change to accommodate the interactive nature of the two. We particularly point to the need to alter community and ecosystem models to account for evolutionary change, and to fundamentally rethink phylogenetics to incorporate the potentially unsettling ramifications of such interactions.

Forest resilience, tipping points and global change processes
Guest Editors: Christopher Reyer, Anja Rammig, Niels Brouwers & Fanny Langerwisch
Special Feature in Volume 103, Issue 1 
Forests ecosystems around the world are under increasing pressure due to local and global change processes such as land conversion and climate change. These changes have substantial impacts on the resilience of forests, possibly pushing them towards tipping points. Investigations into resilience and tipping points in forest ecosystems are of critical importance for assessing the potential changes in the ecosystem services forests provide and for a deeper ecological understanding of how (eco)systems organise. It is, however, notoriously difficult to investigate how specific forest ecosystems will change, because of their inherent complexity, possible feedbacks and non-linear responses.

This Special Feature brings together contributions from the INTECOL 2013 conference and includes seven papers presenting research that fosters the understanding of forest resilience and potential tipping points under local and global change. The focus of this Special Feature is deliberately broad to reflect the variety of methods and spatio-temporal scales used in this field of research. The papers presented in this Special Feature include plot-level observational (Camarero et al. 2015; Jakovac et al. 2015; Standish et al. 2015), experimental (Holmgren et al. 2015), paleo-ecological (Cole et al. 2015), and global modelling (Steinkamp & Hickler 2015) studies, as well as a synthesis paper covering the current state of affairs in forest resilience and tipping point research (Reyer et al. 2015).

The contributions to this Special Feature show that resilience is a useful concept to understand ecosystem change, but that we have to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms and feedback loops involved in forest resilience and potential tipping points. It is often not clear how and if local and global change processes reduce resilience and/or whether they lead to a tipping point. This Special Feature further presents evidence on how resilience thinking is used to better understand and enhance the sustainable management of degraded forests in this time of rapid environmental change.

Grass-woodland transitions: determinants and consequences for ecosystem functioning and provisioning of services
Guest Editors: Fernando Maestre & Osvaldo Sala
Special Feature in Volume 102, Issue 6 
Grasslands, woodlands and savannas occupy large portions of the Earth´s surface, but are particularly prevalent in dryland, temperate and tropical/subtropical regions. These vegetation types play a key role in the functioning of the biosphere and in supporting the needs of human population through the provision of multiple ecosystem services. An important part of the world’s grasslands and savannas is undergoing a rapid shift from herbaceous to woody-plant dominance, which is promoting large changes in their structure and functioning, and thus on the services they provide.

Understanding the causes and consequences of grass-woodland transitions requires the joint consideration of the multiple drivers affecting this phenomenon and their consequences for ecosystem functioning and services. The collection of reviews, empirical and modelling studies included in this Special Feature contribute towards this goal, and will motivate further research in these and other important issues on grass-woodland transitions.

Meta-analysis in plant ecology
Guest Editors: Lorena Gómez-Aparicio & Chris Lortie
Special Feature in Volume 102, Issue 4
The inherent complexity of nature produces a diverse and varied set of outcomes for any given ecological process. However, the advance of ecological knowledge requires generalizations that synthesize current knowledge to guide new basic research and practical applications. Among the synthesis tools available for this specific purpose, meta-analysis is one of the most accurate and powerful methods. This Special Feature examines the use that meta-analysis has received in plant ecology over the last two decades and provides examples of synthesis successfully applied to contemporary topics in plant ecology. The first paper (Koricheva and Gurevitch 2014) reviews the applications and contribution of meta-analysis to plant ecology and assesses the methodological and reporting quality of meta-analysis in this field. The following two papers provide examples of how meta-analysis can contribute to the advance of plant population ecology by revising influential topics such as the Janzen-Connell hypothesis (Comita et al. 2014) or the ecological consequences of intraspecific genetic diversity (Whitlock 2014). Then, Zvereva and Zovlov (2014) show how meta-analysis can contribute to the understanding of interactions among species in plant communities by synthesizing knowledge on the effects of herbivores on leaf life span. The last two papers illustrate the application of meta-analysis for reviewing evidence of global change impacts on plants: Ibáñez et al. (2014) present a comprehensive analysis of the integrated effects of landscape fragmentation on plant species and communities, whereas Thébault et al. (2014) explore the relative importance of local management practices versus climate change drivers on plant productivity and soil processes. All together, the papers included in this Special Feature highlight the many advantages of using meta-analysis in plant ecology but also stress the need for an improvement of the application of this synthesis tool in the ecological literature.

The Tree of Life in Ecosystems: Evolution of Plant Effects on Carbon and Nutrient Cycling
Guest Editors: Hans Cornelissen and Will Cornwell
Special Feature in Volume 102, Issue 2
Evolution is not only about survival of the fittest. More and more we recognise that some traits that change over evolutionary time not only help species to live and reproduce in their natural environment, but that these traits may also be instrumental in changing that very environment. Plant examples include variation among species in the quality of the litter derived from their various organs, which determine decomposition rates; these in turn drive soil nutrient availability and the rates at which plant-fixed carbon is returned to the atmosphere as CO2, with consequences for climate. Plant-microbe symbioses, such as plant host-specific mycorrhizal associations, comprise further examples of species traits affecting carbon and nutrient dynamics. Such connections lead to an ‘eco-evo’ feedback, which is very important to ecosystem and planet function. At short scales of time and space, variation in the ‘effects traits’ of the different lineages that together build a community, will determine aspects of carbon and nutrient cycling in ecosystems. Evolution of these traits in-situ may in some cases also happen rapidly, adding a quick ‘eco-evo’ loop joining the long-term one. On longer scales of time and space, variation among extant taxa in traits related to carbon and nutrient cycling, together with fossil evidence of their ancestors, help us to reconstruct the impact of vegetation composition on the functioning of deep-time ecosystems. This kind of analysis, rooted in empirical work on the traits of extant plants, is now greatly helped by fast advancing molecular and statistical techniques to build reliable, more complete, dated molecular phylogenies. Together these new and exciting research efforts help us towards completing a huge and ambitious task: to map species’ effects on their environment onto the Tree of Life. This Special Feature brings together seven novel contributions to this big research agenda. Together they illustrate the advances and challenges associated with studying the Tree of Life in ecosystems at different scales of time and space. They serve to invite readers of this special issue, from ecologists to evolutionary biologists, interested in plants or other organisms, in field, lab, herbarium or computer room, to help reveal how the Tree of Life impacts on the services provided by our living planet.

New Perspectives in Whole-plant Senescence

Guest Editors: Roberto Salguero-Gómez and Richard Shefferson
Special Feature in Volume 101, Issue 3
Humans who are fortunate enough to live exceptionally long lives also inevitably suffer from the side effects of ageing, getting weaker as time goes by. Senescence, the decrease in survival probability and fertility with age, remains one of the most puzzling questions in ecology and evolutionary biology. Why do individuals who apparently contribute few if any offspring to the population remain alive? Some of the leading researchers in the study of the evolution of senescence in animals have stated that senescence is ubiquitous, regardless of phylogenetic history or environmental pressures. Yet the few studies exploring senescence at the whole-plant level report a variety of results, from species in which survival and reproduction show no change to those in which survival and reproduction even increase with age. These results raise a number of important questions. For example, are some plant species exempt from senescence? And if so, how do they manage to escape this supposedly unavoidable fate?

The Special Feature entitled New Perspectives in Whole-Plant Senescence includes six manuscripts offering a wide array of angles for the exploration of whole-plant senescence. The editorial (Salguero-Gómez, Shefferson & Hutchings 2013) reviews current developments in the field of senescence, and highlights how studies of plant population dynamics can aid in providing a more mechanistic understanding of the conditions under which senescence evolves. Morales et al. (2013) explore the physiological differences between young and old individuals of a dioecious herbaceous perennial species, reporting negative senescence and negligible costs of reproduction in female plants. Tuomi et al. (2013) examine whether the biological clock has the potential to reset itself by using two remarkable long-term censuses of two herbaceous species in which vegetative dormancy, i.e. absence of sprouting for one or more growing seasons, occurs frequently. Shefferson and Roach (2013) explore the role of the environment in shaping senescence trajectories in a uniquely replicated experimental design. Caswell and Salguero-Gómez (2013) introduce a methodological advance to quantify selection gradients for mortality and fertility in plant population projection matrices. Finally, Baudisch et al. (2013) explore how common senescence is among angiosperm species by examining the effects of phylogeny, habitat and growth form on the speed of life, and the way in which overall survivorship decays with age.

Senescence remains one of the most intriguing phenomena in evolutionary biology and its implications apply to most – if not all – fields of ecology, as stated in the editorial article. Although research into plant senescence has, to this point, been far less than that devoted to animal senescence, plants are ideal organisms with which to test specific hypotheses about senescence from both an experimental and a comparative approach. We hope that the present Special Feature will motivate further research on senescence to determine how, why and which plants undergo or escape it.

Plant-soil Feedbacks in a Changing Word
Guest Editor: Wim van der Putten
Special Feature in Volume 101, Issue 2
Feedback interactions between plants, biotic and abiotic conditions of the soil are of profound importance as they structure the composition of communities and drive the functioning of ecosystems. It is evident that community and ecosystem responses to land use changes, loss of biodiversity, biological invasions, and climate change cannot be understood without accounting for plant-soil feedbacks. This Special Feature presents eight papers with novel data and syntheses on recent progress in this field of research highlighting how the black box of soil can be opened and its functioning better understood. The first paper reviews progress in plant-soil feedback research and highlights novel and exciting new avenues. Then, three papers elucidate how plant-soil feedback plays a role in recruitment, coexistence, diversity-productivity relationships, and how invasive species may benefit from and change plant-soil feedback interactions in the new range. These papers clarify the crucial role that soil plays in elementary properties of plant population and community dynamics. The next two papers present the temporal aspects of plant-soil feedback. Feedback interactions develop in a dynamic way and young plants can be differently influenced by soil properties than established individuals. A modeling study reveals that plant-soil feedback interactions can delay the convergence in plant community composition, which explains why not all plant communities become dominated by the most competitive species. The final two papers present different approaches to connect plant-soil feedback with aboveground-belowground interactions concept. The first shows how interactions between aboveground and belowground invertebrate herbivores and their enemies can be memorized in soil, because of changes in soil fungal community composition. The second provides a new hierarchical model to enhance understanding of community and ecosystem responses to global climate change through plant-soil feedback effects of climate change. It is evident that this field still has many challenges, for example teasing apart the contributions of the various biotic components in the soil and testing feedback interactions in the field. Thus, this concept will both enrich ecological theory and provide essential understanding to all who are concerned with vegetation and nature management with possible spin-offs to production ecology thereby enhance the sustainability of life on earth.

Plant Functional Effects on Ecosystem Services
Guest Editor: Sandra Lavorel
Special Feature in Volume 101, Issue 1
The prominent new place of ecosystem services in environmental policy, land management and land planning requires that the best ecological knowledge be applied to ecosystem service quantification. Given strong evidence that functional diversity underpins the delivery of key ecosystem services, assessments of these services may progress rapidly by using a trait-based approach. This Special Feature presents five papers that illustrate recent progress in the use of plant functional approaches to quantify and understand ecosystem service delivery, and its variation within managed landscapes. These papers cover a range of ecosystem services and the variety of mechanisms through which plant functional traits determine ecosystem functioning. They illustrate how some of the key conceptual and methodological challenges can be resolved, and provide a range of supporting case studies across three continents. Together, the five papers highlight three cross-cutting issues of broad interest to a diversity of readers. First, they provide evidence for the relevance of basic trade-offs in plant functioning to ecosystem service provision. Second, they show how carbon and nutrient cycling processes are related to traits of the most abundant species as well as to the heterogeneity in trait values within communities. Third, they showcase novel trait-based analyses for ecosystem services that are underpinned by interactions between plants and other biota such as soil microorganisms or insects. Trait-based ecosystem service analyses will be essential to address future challenges like the management of ecosystems towards multifunctionality.

Centenary Symposium Special Feature
Editors: Michael Hutchings, David Gibson, Richard Bardgett and Mark Rees
Special Feature in Volume 100, Issue 1 - Centenary Special Issue 
Journal of Ecology was the first ecological journal in the world. It was established as the official publication of the newly formed British Ecological Society in 1913 under the leadership and guidance of the Society’s first President, Sir Arthur Tansley FRS (1871–1955). The pages of Journal of Ecology have hosted many of the most influential papers in plant ecology.
In celebration of the Journal’s 100th anniversary, a Centenary Symposium was held during the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in Sheffield, UK, in September 2011. A group of internationally-renowned researchers were invited to talk on topics in which the Journal has published major contributions over the last century, and in which significant progress is currently being made. The contributors to the Centenary Symposium produced written versions of their papers for publication in the Journal of Ecology’s Centenary Special Issue. The papers in this Centenary Symposium Special Feature cover a wide range of topics, so there is something to interest every reader. Some of the topics and ideas dealt with in this set of papers were not even remotely within Tansley’s sphere of thought when Journal of Ecology was being launched by the British Ecological Society in 1913. The Journal editors are confident that the ten papers presented in this Special Feature are significant contributions to the literature, and that they will be widely-read for many years to come

Ecological Consequences of Climate Extremes
Guest Editors: Melinda Smith and Alan Knapp
Special Feature in Volume 99, Issue 3
Global climate change is expected to increase both the frequency and intensity of climate extremes, such as severe drought, heat waves and periods of heavy rainfall, and there is an urgent need to understand their ecological consequences. A major challenge for advancing our understanding of the ecological consequences of climate extremes is being able to attribute climate extremes as the drivers of extreme ecological responses, defined as extreme climatic events (ECEs). The papers in this issue represent a cross-section of the emerging field of climate extremes research, including an examination of the palaeo-ecological record to assess patterns and drivers of extreme ecological responses in the late Quaternary, experiments that assess a wide range of ecological responses including the role of ecotypic variation in determining responses to climate extremes, landscape-scale quantification of the ecological consequences of a recent ECE in the desert south-west of the USA, and an alternative approach to impose realistic climate extremes on a broad range of organisms and ecosystems. Combined, the eight papers in this Special Feature provide conceptual, empirical and technical perspectives on the approaches ecologists are using to better understand the importance of this widespread but understudied aspect of global climate change.

Plant-mediated Interactions between Above- and Below-ground Communities
Guest Editor: Martin Heil
Special Feature in Volume 99, Issue 1
Typical higher plants root firmly in the soil and expose their leaves to air and sun. In spite of this obvious anatomical integration of a plant’s aerial compartment with the below-ground world, scientists only recently have started to realize that plants also mediate interactions between above-ground and below-ground communities that usually are physically separated from each other. The articles in the Special Feature demonstrate that the systemically induced plant responses to local interactions with one type of organism can have multiple effects on numerous other species, be they insects, fungi or bacteria, and that these effects can alter the fitness of the interacting partners and thus the community structure at multiple trophic levels.

Advances in Plant Demography using Matrix Models
Guest Editors: Roberto Salguero-Gómez and Hans de Kroon
Special Feature in Volume 98, Issue 2
Matrix projection models have become the prevalent technique in the toolbox of plant ecologists addressing ecological and evolutionary questions at the demographic level. These questions refer to some of the great challenges in conservation ecology today, including estimation of extinction risks in endangered species, determination of compatible harvesting practices for population sustainability, and responses of populations to global climate change. The nine manuscripts of this Special Feature add to the already extensive field of plant demography with methodologies that allow for the exploration of plant population responses in more realistic scenarios, where the stochastic nature of the natural environment is fully taken into account.

Facilitation in Plant Communities
Guest Editors: Rob Brooker and Ray Callaway
Special Feature in Volume 97, Issue 6
Facilitative, i.e. beneficial, plant–plant interactions are recognized as a common feature of plant communities, particularly in more severe environments. Despite the recent considerable interest in the topic, we still have much to learn about these ecological processes, and researchers interested in facilitation in plant communities have only recently started to come together as a community. The papers in this Special Feature thus pull together information from a wide range of fields where there are clearly links to be made to the study of plant facilitation, but where progress in making these links has, to date, been slow. In addition to attempting to broaden the scope of plant facilitation research, the papers address fundamental issues within plant community ecology, such as the regulatory role of facilitation for biodiversity andcommunity dynamics, or the possible application of an understanding of facilitation for conservation.

Plant–Soil Interactions and the Carbon Cycle
Guest Editors: Richard Bardgett, Gerlinde De Deyn and Nicholas Ostle
Special Feature in Volume 97, Issue 5
This Special Feature explores recent advances in understanding about the ways in which plants and soils interact to influence ecosystem carbon dynamics.
It was generated by bringing together scientists with different expertise in ecosystem carbon dynamics at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, held at Imperial College London. Experts ranged from those working on plant physiological controls on carbon dynamics at local scales, to those exploring how major shifts in vegetation might feedback on soil carbon cycling at regional and global scales. The six papers address a wide range of questions about plant–soil interactions and the carbon cycle, and illustrate some of the major advances that have been made and challenges that remain in this rapidly growing field.

Guest Editors: James M. Bullock and Ran Nathan
Special Feature in Volume 96, Issue 4
Plants are generally sessile organisms, but dispersal of seeds or other diaspores links the life cycle of an immobile individual to processes at local, landscape and biogeographic scales. Studying plant dispersal across multiple scales requires the development of new statistical, simulation and mathematical models to predict dispersal more precisely and to use the better data to understand ecological processes at these scales. This Special Feature, consisting of 12 papers, examines the current state of knowledge about plant dispersal and illustrates the major advances that have been made in this rapidly growing field over the last few years.


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