The Power of Global Databases

Dave Hodgson, University of Exeter

These are exciting times for the study of animal and plant demographies and life histories. Evolutionary ecologists seek to understand how evolutionary processes shape the distribution, abundance and dynamics of organisms in their environment. Only then can we confidently predict the future of biodiversity on our planet.

If we are to understand ecological fitness, or population dynamics, then we must consider the vital rates (birth, survival, growth) and the demographic rates (transition and numerical changes across life-stages) of organisms, integrated across the entire life cycle. A dog is a dog from the moment of conception right through to moment of death. A thistle is a thistle from the moment of pollination through to the moment of death. The mathematical methods to integrate these vital rates are well-established, but continue to develop. The empirical efforts of demographers, and life history biologists, worldwide and for several decades, have yielded projection matrix models, and integral projection models, for thousands of populations or genotypes of hundreds of plant and animal species, often replicated through time. The COMPADRE (Salguero‐Gómez et al. 2015) and COMADRE global databases bring these models together (Salguero-Gómez et al. in prep.), for the first time, and are available for use by all interested researchers.

The power of these databases was unveiled recently at the British Ecological Society symposium “Demography: Beyond the Population”, in Sheffield, organised by Alden Griffith, Rob Salguero-Gómez, Jessica Metcalf, Sean McMahon, Cory Merow and Dylan Childs. Here, several speakers used COMPADRE, the plant database, to perform comparative analyses of how plant life histories evolve and how plant populations fluctuate in their environments. Replication of demographic models across space and through time allows us to study the impacts of non-equilibrium conditions on optimal life histories and on population dynamics. Exciting developments include the matching of life history to climate envelopes; the adaptive value of life histories that boom in response to demographic disturbances; detecting the signal of shared ancestry on life history; linking demography to niche dimensions; understanding how environmental and demographic stochasticity shapes vital rates.

COMPADRE is now firmly established as a key database for evolutionary and ecological demography. COMADRE, its sister database that hosts demographic models for animals worldwide, is on the verge of release to a global scientific audience. These databases are ripe for exploitation, and we hope they will help reveal patterns and mechanisms that create the incredible diversity of life histories we observe in the world around us. The databases also reveal new opportunities: the next generation of computer-savvy ecologists should seek to combine the strengths of various global databases, to integrate information on life history, demography, genomics, phenotypic traits, climate, habitat, distribution and population dynamics FOR AS MANY SPECIES AS WE POSSIBLY CAN.

Read more at http://www.compadre-db.org/

Salguero‐Gómez R., Jones O.R., Archer C.R., Buckley Y.M., Che‐Castaldo J., Caswell H., Hodgson D., Scheuerlein A., Conde D.A. & Brinks E. (2015). The compadre Plant Matrix Database: an open online repository for plant demography. Journal of Ecology, 103, 202-218.

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