Collaborative Research: A Unified Theoretical Approach to Community Coevolution
Understanding how species coevolve within complex ecological communities is one of the greatest technical challenges in evolutionary biology. Mathematical models of coevolution with even modest amounts of biological reality usually defy transparent, general analyses of coevolution. This project will develop innovative mathematical tools for analyzing coevolution in complex communities, including both evolutionary and population dynamics. The two main analytic approaches will make use of different mathematical approximations available when the strength of selection is relatively weak or strong. The scope and accuracy of these new methods will be verified using computer simulations. The new mathematical tools will also be used to address two important questions in community coevolution. First, does the number of potential hosts influence transitions between generalist and specialist parasites? Second, does coevolution lead to different ecological network structure in mutualistic vs. antagonistic communities? In each case, theoretical predictions will be tested in the laboratories of empirical collaborators. Ongoing studies of host use in bacteriophage will evaluate predictions for specialist-generalist transitions in parasites; data from well-studied plant-insect interactions will test predictions for the coevolution of community network structure.
The proposed work will contribute to the continued integration of analytic methods into the biological sciences. Results will be widely disseminated through publication, scientific presentations, and software packages developed during the project. Training will introduce at least three post-doctoral researchers, four graduate students, and five undergraduates to cutting-edge analytical and computational techniques. The research collaboration also reinforces existing interactions between biology and mathematics departments in geographically proximate Washington State University and the University of Idaho. In addition, the project supports a unique international collaboration, and strengthens emerging regional ties between mathematical biologists at institutions in Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.