The ugly duckling

by Rob Salguero-Gomez on May 28, 2024

Advancements in technology have revolutionized the collection, storage, and analysis of ecological data, enabling the creation of vast repositories. These databases have the potential to deepen our understanding of critical ecological and evolutionary concepts and to help identify useful management and conservation strategies. Despite these benefits, challenges associated with ecological databases, such as quality control, standardization, and privacy concerns, persist. Ensuring that data are accurate, reliable, and up to date is crucial for maintaining the integrity of these databases.

Within population ecology, researchers have long recognized several biases and limitations in the construction and application of demographic models. These include missed dormant stages, sporadic recruitment, variations in longevity, and differences among life-history phases (e.g. larvae vs adults). Dormant life stages have been ignored with relatively high frequency. A recent paper in Bioscience (López-Borghesi and Quintana-Ascencio 2024) explores the omission of seed banks in demography as an example of bias in population ecology. The study compares the inclusion of seed banks in plant demographic models against independent documentation of their occurrence for each focal species, drawing from two existing and freely available databases: the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database and the LEDA Traitbase. They found more omissions among perennial herbs and evidence that modeling choices and study design may explain patterns of seed bank omissions. Considering a larger number of populations decreased the chance of omissions.

Environmental variation is essential for understanding life history traits, especially those that are challenging to study. Researchers might not be compelled to evaluate complex vital rates, as they may require specific conditions to be elicited and may not be critical for their objectives. The conditions under which these studies with restricted focus are implemented, therefore may not be enough to properly characterize the life history of the species, limiting the value of these data for comparative studies across organisms. The role of environmental variation in elucidating population dynamics cannot be overstated. It is essential for studies seeking to leverage these databases to account for complete life histories and adequate environmental heterogeneity. Omissions of relevant phenomena in plant demography might affect our ability to leverage databases for robust analyses of ecological patterns.

The research can be found here: 

Lopez-Borghesi & Quintana-Ascencio. 2024. The omission of seed banks in demography as an example of biase in Ecology. BioScience, biae042,


Blog written by Fede Lopez-Borghesi & Pedro Quintana-Ascencio


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