Generalism in nature: a community ecology perspective

Hugh D. Loxdale* (Corresponding author), Jeffrey A. Harvey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Life on Earth is complex and generally abounds in food webs with other living organisms in terms of an ecological community. Besides such complexity, and the fact that populations of most living organisms have never been studied in terms of their molecular ecology, it is best to tread carefully when describing a given species as a ‘generalist’, more especially in terms of dietary and habitat breadth. We very much doubt that population homogeneity ever exists—because populations are always undergoing molecular-genetic changes, sometimes rapid, in response to various ecological challenges (e.g. climate, intra- and interspecific competition). In any case, a population may already have begun to undergo cryptic speciation. Such entities can occupy different habitats or exhibit different dietary breadths as a result of various ecological interactions formed over different spatial scales. These scales include everything from local (including islands) to geographic. The fossil evidence reveals that specialisations have existed over vast swathes of time. Besides, as is well documented, evolution only occurs as a result of adaptations leading to specialisation, and ultimately, specialist entitles, i.e. species and lower levels of ecological-evolutionary divergence. Here, focusing on diet, we posit that the terms mono-, oligo-and polyphagous are more accurate in relation to the dietary breadth of animals, with omnivory adopted in the case of organisms with very different food items. Thus, we strongly urge that the dubious and unscientific term ‘generalism’ be dropped in favour of these more precise and scientifically accurate terms directly relating to levels of phagy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCommunity Ecology
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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