Classifying animals into ecologically-meaningful groups

It is common for ecologists to classify animals into groups based on habitat preferences – think, for example, of woodland birds or tropical reef fish.  These groupings make intuitive sense and are useful for considering the broader implications of habitat loss and management.  However, what happens if different ecologists classify species differently? Work done by Hannah Fraser demonstrated that inconsistent classification might impede progress in ecology and conservation by precluding comparisons between studies, or changing the inference from a single study.

What makes a woodland bird a woodland bird?

So, then, how should we go about classifying species into groups that a way that is defensible and ecologically meaningful?  In her latest paper (available for free until October 18th!) , Hannah investigates how species traits might be used to identify Australian woodland birds.  Interestingly, she found that Australian woodland birds may be united by their avoidance of sparsely-treed and densely-treed habitat, rather than by shared traits that specifically drive a preference for low-density, open-canopied woodland vegetation.

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