Revisited: What is an ecological community?

As I mentioned in a previous post (1), community ecology is a confusing field, confounded by the interchangeable use of many fundamental terms.

A group of graduate students and I discussed this paradigm and thought we would see what people’s own interpretations were, as an update and extension of a previous exercise conducted by Fauth et al. (1996). We created an online poll asking contributors to describe which factors are most important in defining the following key terms in community ecology: ‘community,’ ‘assemblage,’ ‘guild’ and ‘ensemble.’

There was certainly a lot of variation! We decided it was interesting enough to draft the results up into a manuscript, and it has eventually found some light in Ecology and Evolution. Specifically, we discussed the interpretation of each term from the perspective of undergraduate, graduate, non-academic, and professor perspectives, and conducted a thorough review of many ecology and evolution textbooks to investigate similarities in use. The abstract is detailed below, and you can find a link to the original paper here. Many thanks to all of you who contributed to the survey, your input it very much appreciated!


Community ecology is an inherently complicated field, confounded by the conflicting use of fundamental terms. Nearly two decades ago, Fauth et al. (1996) demonstrated that imprecise language led to the virtual synonymy of important terms and so attempted to clearly define four keywords in community ecology; “community,” “assemblage,” “guild,” and “ensemble”. We revisit Fauth et al.’s conclusion and discuss how the use of these terms has changed over time since their review. An updated analysis of term definition from a selection of popular ecological textbooks suggests that definitions have drifted away from those encountered pre-1996, and slightly disagreed with results from a survey of 100 ecology professionals (comprising of academic professors, nonacademic PhDs, graduate and undergraduate biology students). Results suggest that confusion about these terms is still widespread in ecology. We conclude with clear suggestions for definitions of each term to be adopted hereafter to provide greater cohesion among research groups.

Figure 1. Relative interest in community ecology terms from 1977 to 2013, as reflected by respective citation histories (trends are overlayed, not stacked). The publication date of Fauth et al. is indicated by a vertical dashed line. Terms were searched for in the“ecology” category of ISI Web of Science (accessed 20 February 14).

Stroud, J.T., Bush, M.R., Ladd, M.C., Nowicki, R.J., Shantz, A.A., and Sweatman, J. (2015) – Is a community still a community? Reviewing definitions of key terms in community ecology. Ecology and Evolution, 5(21): 4757-4765

Although one tragedy did occur – we were a month too late to get into the issue sporting a beautiful green anole as the cover photo! Credit goes to Simon Lailvaux and colleagues for getting yet another anole front page.

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