Thermodynamics predicts density-dependent energy use in organisms and ecological communities

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Linking our knowledge of organisms to our knowledge of ecological communities and ecosystems is a key challenge for ecology. Individual size distributions (ISDs) link the size of individual organisms to the structure of ecological communities, so that studying ISDs might provide insight into how organism functioning affects ecosystems. Similarly shaped ISDs among ecosystems, coupled with allometric links between organism size and resource use, suggest the possibility of emergent resource-use patterns in ecological communities. We drew on thermodynamics to develop a maximization principle that predicted both organism and community energy use. These predictions highlighted the importance of density-dependent metabolic rates and were able to explain nonlinear relationships between community energy use and community biomass. We analyzed data on fish community energy use and biomass and found evidence of nonlinear scaling, which was predicted by the thermodynamic principle developed here and is not explained by other theories of ISDs. Detailed measurements of organism energy use will clarify the role of density dependence in driving metabolic rates and will further test our derived thermodynamic principle. Importantly, our study highlights the potential for fundamental links between ecology and thermodynamics.




Yen, J. D. L., Paganin, D. M., Thomson, J. R., & Mac Nally, R. (2015). Thermodynamics predicts density-dependent energy use in organisms and ecological communities. Physical Review E - Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics, 91(4).

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