the Seeds of Science

Your source for the latest from the University of Toronto's department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Classic papers in ecology and evolution

Left top to right bottom:  Jim Archie, Peter Petraitis, Doug Futuyma, Ron Carroll, 1975;  George Smith; Douglas Futuyma and Fred Gould, 1978; Robert MacArthur; Eric Pianka; and Evelyn Hutchinson.
Left top to right bottom: Jim Archie, Peter Petraitis, Doug Futuyma, Ron Carroll, 1975; George Smith; Douglas Futuyma and Fred Gould, 1978; Robert MacArthur; Eric Pianka; and Evelyn Hutchinson.

With so many papers being published all the time, it’s easy to miss out on interesting ones from the past. We decide, therefore, to start the ‘Classics in ecology and evolution journal club’–a journal club that focuses exclusively on papers published before 1988 (that’s the year the organisers, Joanna Bundus and Stephen De Lisle, were born). Our goal was not to read the most famous or influential papers, but rather to find and discuss those that while interesting, have mostly been overlooked.

Below are the papers we read (16 so far), a link to the paper, and a short description of what peaked our interests in the paper. After a summer break, we will begin the next batch of papers in September.

Thanks to everyone who attended this journal club and participated in discussions, and especially to Locke Rowe for his enthusiastic support.  If you are interested in presenting a paper in the future or being involved in organising the club please email Stephen (


Mar 20. 2015 MacArthur, R.H. & E.R. Pianka. 1966. On optimal use of a patchy environment. Am. Nat. 100:603-609. (chosen by Njal  Rollinson) 

Optimality models allow us to develop and test adaptive hypotheses for specific traits, trait combinations, or behaviours, and they have played an important role in the field of ecology and evolution. In this paper, MacArthur and Pianka develop an optimality model and use it to explore how predator behaviour should be affected by resource abundance and the spatial distribution of these resources. This work represents the birth of behavioural ecology as we know it, and it sets the stage for the broad use of optimality models in evolutionary ecology.


Mar 13. 2015 Levin, B. R. 1972. Coexistence of two asexual strains on a single resource. Science 175:1272-1274. (chosen by Viktor Nilsson-Örtman)

I chose this paper hoping it would be a good starting point for discussing ecological niches. The paper points out that the competitive exclusion principle (and Hutchinson’s niche concept) is based on circular logic, and proposes a more inclusive definition of the ecological niche concept that includes not only resources but also competition and predation – anything that can limit a species’ population size.


Mar 6. 2015 van Noordwijk, A. & de Jong, G. 1986. Acquisition and allocation of resources: their influence on variation in life history tactics. Am. Nat. 128: 137–142. (chosen by David Punzalan)

I chose this paper because it provides a simple and intuitive explanation for the often observed (and at the time, puzzling to some) phenomenon of positive correlations between (resource-limited) traits that one would expect to trade-off (i.e. be negatively correlated).  The model essentially shows that the covariance between traits depends on the variance in the acquisition of resources relative to the variance in allocation.  This is easily illustrated in an example that they use (and I’ll paraphrase): cars and houses both cost money.  Money spent on cars cannot be spent on houses (and vice versa).  Nonetheless, wealthy people tend have both expensive houses and expensive cars (i.e. a positive correlation) because how people choose to allocate to these expenses is less variable than the disparity in people’s wealth.


Feb 27. 2015 King, M.-C. & A.C. Wilson. 1975. Evolution at Two Levels in Humans and Chimpanzees. Science 188:107-116. (chosen by Emily Josephs)

I picked King and Wilson because I think it’s place in history has often puzzled me: it’s commonly cited as the origin of the idea that regulatory evolution is important for adaptation despite not directly investigating gene regulation at all! However, our discussion made me appreciate the importance of the paper’s main observation, which is that there’s very little protein divergence between humans and chimpanzees. We still don’t understand the genetic basis of phenotypic divergence between humans and chimpanzees that well, so it was neat to read one of the early papers addressing this problem.


Feb 13. 2015 Williams, G.C. 1957. Pleiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution 11:398-411. (chosen by Brechann McGoey)

In this classic paper, Williams formalizes the antagonistic pleiotropy theory of aging, and presents a set of expectations that follow from this hypothesis. This paper led to some particularly interesting discussions of the (now frowned upon) practice of gonad transplants.


Feb 6. 2015 Lewontin RC. 1970. The units of selection. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1:1-18. (chosen by Arvid Agren)

In this classic review article on the levels of selection debate, Lewontin proposes three principles (variation, selection, and heredity) that captures the universal nature of evolution by natural selection.


30 Jan. 2015 Leigh Van Valen’s 1976. Ecological species, multispecies, and oaks. Taxon 25:233-239. (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

I picked this paper for two reasons.  First, Van Valen’s papers are always interesting- usually ahead of their time and eccentric in nature, and although most know him for his Red Queen hypothesis, his work was really quite broad.  This paper was a critique of the biological species concept that was made de rigueur by Mayr.  Van Valen makes some compelling arguments for why simply defining species based on reproductive isolation is misleading and sometimes meaningless, and proposes that definitions based on the niche are more relevant.


23 Jan. 2015 Gottlieb, L. D. 1984. Genetics and morphological evolution in plants. Am. Nat. 123:681-709. (chosen by Joanna Bundus)

I picked this paper because I though it had an interesting premise. Gottlieb claims that discrete character differences are more common in plants than animals, and hypothesizes that this is a consequence of the more ‘open’ patterns of plant morphogenesis, which allow large changes in morphology based on only a few genes.


5 Dec. 2015 Antonovics, J. 1976. The input from population genetics: “The New Ecological genetics”. Systematic Botany 1:233-245. (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

This paper argues that the distinction between “ecological” and “evolutionary” time scale (think Hutchinson’s ‘ecological theatre and evolutionary play’) is arbitrary, because evolution can and does occur rapidly enough to feed back to affect ecological dynamics.  For those who trot out “eco-evolutionary dynamics” as a new field of study, this paper is a must read.  Antonovics even lists citations suggesting others had been thinking this way before 1976.


28 Nov. 2015. Futuyma 1987. On the role of species in anagenesis. Am. Nat. 130:465–473.  (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

One of the most interesting dilemmas to emerge out of the modern synthesis is that morphology changes little within lineages across geologic time, although we often see rapid evolution in extant populations.  This is still an unresolved problem.  Here, Futuyma offers a potential explanation rooted in biogeographic constraint. Many still cite this as the best explanation for stasis.


21 Nov. 2015 Charlesworth, B., R. Lande, and M. Slatkin. 1982. A neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolution. Evolution 36:474–498.  (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

This paper was a direct response to Eldredge & Gould, and others, who claimed that patterns in the fossil record provided a counterpoint to the modern synthesis and suggested that the body of evolutionary theory emerging from 1930-1950 needed to be revised.  Charlesworth et al. defend the modern synthesis as capable of explaining macroevolution as well.  There is a lot in this substantial review paper.


14 Nov. 2015 Hairston, Tinkle, & Wilbur 1970 Natural selection and the parameters of population growth. Journal of Wildlife Management 34(4):681-690. (suggested by the group)

This paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management points out that the similarities of mathematical models of population genetics and population ecology are often purely mathematical.  A key point is that under conditions of density-dependent population regulation, the alleles that spread most rapidly through the population will actually result in slower per-capita population growth rate.  This paper is worth a read both for it’s illustration of the mathematical similarities between population genetics and ecology, and also it gives perspective on then-pervasive misconceptions about the nature of natural selection that Hairston et al. set straight.


7 Nov. 2015 Levin, B. R. 1972. Coexistence of two asexual strains on a single resource. Science 175:1272-1274. (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

This was one of Bruce Levin’s first influential papers, and presents a then-surprising result, that two microbes that are limited by the same resource can none-the-less coexist, contra to Gauss’s assertion that competitive exclusion should occur.  Levin shows that coexistence is probably maintained by different growth strategies between the strains, such that each can invade when rare.  This paper led to some interesting discussion of population genetics and population ecology that brought us to reading Hairston et al.’s paper on this topic.


31 Oct. 2015 Williams, G.C. 1966. Natural selection, the costs of reproduction, and a refinement of Lack’s principle. Am. Nat. 100:687-692. (chosen by Stephen De Lisle)

In this note, Williams lays out the concept of reproductive value both mathematically and verbally, setting the foundation for which nearly all life history theory since is based.  He even makes empirical predictions that in some cases have yet to be rigorously tested. Everyone should spend the time to read these few pages.


24 Oct. 2015 Felsenstein, J. 1981. Skepticism towards Santa Rosalia, or why are there so few kinds of animals? Evolution 35(1):124-138. (chosen by Joanna Bundus)

In this reply to Hutchinson’s paper,  Felsenstein presents the view that when considering organismal diversity, the genetic constraints that prevent speciation are more important than the ecological constraints that limit coexistence.


17 Oct. 2015 Hutchinson, G. E. 1959. Homage to Santa Rosalia, or why are there so many kinds of animals? Am. Nat. 93:145-159.  (chosen by Joanna Bundus)

In this influential paper, Hutchinson asks a simple question: Why are there so many kinds of species? He suggests that the answer to this question lies in understanding how species are able to coexist given ecological constraints.





This entry was posted on May 5, 2015 by in Diaries, Events.