Dr. Cottenie's research focuses on metacommunity dynamics, with a special emphasis on aquatic ecosystems. A metacommunity consists of multiple communities in a landscape linked by the dispersal of individuals. The metacommunity approach adds a layer of complexity above community dynamics and biod...
Dr. Cottenie's research focuses on metacommunity dynamics, with a special emphasis on aquatic ecosystems. A metacommunity consists of multiple communities in a landscape linked by the dispersal of individuals. The metacommunity approach adds a layer of complexity above community dynamics and biodiversity: depending on the degree of dispersal and environmental heterogeneity between different sites, dynamics can be determined by local environmental conditions or by processes in neighbouring sites that are propagated via dispersal of individuals. Cottenie's lab employs a quantitative approach to integrate observational, experimental and synthetic data sets, gathered by himself and others, to study this interaction of dispersal and environmental processes. His research is a continuation of his present and past work.
Cottenie focuses on three major lines of research philosophy: the integration of ecology and statistics, the combination of theory, observational and experimental data, and the synthesis of patterns. He applies these principles to metacommunity dynamics, starting with freshwater communities as model systems for testing theory with observations and experiments. However, since metacommunity dynamics are a new and extremely relevant framework to study natural systems, collaborative projects in other systems (terrestrial, marine) are valuable in our understanding of natural and manipulated systems. Several broad research questions Cottenie wants to explore are:
- Three-dimensional metacommunity dynamics: Cottenie mainly studied metacommunity dynamics at single snapshots in time, but adding a temporal dimension to this is a challenging exercise, both data-analytically and conceptually. This can be done both at two levels, both with observational data and with modelling a specific lake system. The observational data involves time series in interconnected sites. The modelling study incorporates both the spatially explicit setting, dispersal between the different ponds, local interactions such as competition, predation, input from resting egg bank, etc. The model receives input from field observations which results in determining the relative effect of local versus regional dynamics. These can then be compared to the results from purely observational data, and a third step manipulates the model parameters to determine, for instance, the amounts of dispersal necessary to switch from species sorting to mass effects in this system.
- Comparing macroinvertebrate metacommunity dynamics to other components of the ecosystem, phytoplankton, rotifers, fish, zooplankton, bacteria, macrophytes, etc. These groups - with different body sizes, dispersal abilities, and environment requirements - would form ideal contrasts to the published zooplankton metacommunity results. This is a possible method to determine the influence of these factors on metacommunity dynamics.
- Cottenie is also continuing the research that started at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). Although gathering new data is important to improve the knowledge of particular systems and to test theories and hypotheses, using "old" data to answer a new question or to synthesize the current information available in a particular field is indispensable in any science, but especially in ecology. Gathering data is a time-consuming and expensive process, and (re-)using as much as possible only adds to the value of data. Thus Cottenie synthesizes research results using meta-analysis techniques and collaborative projects.
- Next to these fundamental ecological questions, Cottenie approaches more applied issues through the metacommunity theory. Since metacommunity theory studies the interaction between local environmental and spatial dispersal processes, it is becoming the new paradigm in conservation biology. Metacommunity theory is especially useful in the conservation problems regarding reserve design and invasive species/genetically modified organisms. The techniques Cottenie has developed are both valuable to design new reserves as to evaluate the ecological effectiveness of certain designs. Also, the effectiveness in stopping the spread of invasive species depends on both the knowledge of interactions with the biotic and abiotic environment and knowledge of dispersal characteristics of the species.