Understanding the effects of intraspecific genetic diversity on the structure and functioning of ecological communities is a fundamentally important part of evolutionary ecology and may also have conservation relevance in identifying the situations in which genetic diversity coincides with species-level diversity.
Early studies within this field documented positive relationships between genetic diversity and ecological structure, but recent studies have challenged these findings. Conceptual synthesis has been hampered because studies have used different measures of intraspecific variation (phenotypically adaptive vs. neutral) and have considered different measures of ecological structure in different ecological and spatial contexts. The aim of this study is to strengthen conceptual understanding by providing an empirical synthesis quantifying the relationship between genetic diversity and ecological structure.
Here, I present a meta-analysis of the relationship between genetic diversity within plant populations and the structure and functioning of associated ecological communities (including 423 effect sizes from 70 studies). I used Bayesian meta-analyses to examine (i) the strength and direction of this relationship, (ii) the extent to which phenotypically adaptive and neutral (molecular) measures of diversity differ in their association with ecological structure and (iii) variation in outcomes among different measures of ecological structure and in different ecological contexts.
Effect sizes measuring the relationship between adaptive diversity (genotypic richness) and both community- and ecosystem-level ecological responses were small, but significantly positive. These associations were supported by genetic effects on species richness and productivity, respectively.
There was no overall association between neutral genetic diversity and measures of ecological structure, but a positive correlation was observed under a limited set of demographic conditions. These results suggest that adaptive and neutral genetic diversity should not be treated as ecologically equivalent measures of intraspecific variation.
Synthesis. This study advances the debate over whether relationships between genetic diversity and ecological structure are either simply positive or negative, by showing how the strength and direction of these relationships changes with different measures of diversity and in different ecological contexts. The results provide a solid foundation for assessing when and where an expanded synthesis between ecology and genetics will be most fruitful.