In our latest Q&A with an author, Simone Fontana talks about his recent paper, Intraspecific niche partitioning in macrodetritivores enhances mixed leaf litter decomposition, the background to this research and what led him to it.

About the paper

Our paper investigates the influence of intraspecific trait variation in a detritivore species (the woodlouse Oniscus asellus) on mixed leaf litter decomposition (Betula pendula and Acer platanoides). The idea behind this study is that differences in body size can be related to metabolic and physiological differences. As a consequence, distinct size categories (and/or ontogenetic stages) of a single species might occupy different feeding niches. If this is the case, it should be possible to observe complementarity effects due to intraspecific niche partitioning, leading to an increase in total leaf litter decomposition when different size classes have the opportunity to select their preferred food source among many. In fact, this is what our results clearly show.

We decided to address this research question for two main reasons. First, my previous research in a different system (i.e. phytoplankton populations and communities competing for light) showed that fine-scale intraspecific niche partitioning exists, and enhances our mechanistic understanding of community assembly and ecosystem processes. Second, despite this recognition, the intraspecific component of trait variation is still largely understudied. Although other studies already demonstrated that different individuals of the same species have different consumption rates, we were additionally able to assess the consequences for ecosystem-level processes when such individuals co-exist. The message of our article is that researchers should increasingly investigate the main actors of fundamental ecological processes: individual organisms. After all, they represent the level at which selective processes occur. Obviously, our article raises many new research questions. For example, it is still unclear how the mechanism we describe works at the community level and in real-world scenarios. Still, we believe that our paper can be an interesting reading for everyone involved in research about biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, community assembly, functional traits and biotic interactions.

About the research

The results of our paper are relevant to our understanding of fundamental mechanisms in ecology. Consequently, the logic behind our study can be applied way beyond its target species, system and process. This might pave the way for a change of focus in trait-based ecology: differences among individual organisms matter for large-scale processes, and so they cannot be ignored.

I admit this is not an easy task: measuring traits of single individuals can be very time demanding and challenging. I realized this during our experiment as well. Although we only measured body weight, it was challenging to do so for hundreds of animals, making sure at the same time they did not get injured (they needed to be fit and consume litter) or escaped. After all, it was not easy to explain them the importance of the experiment, and that they would have been released after it! In addition, I also needed to learn many aspects of the organisms and the system, which were completely new for me. Many experts in the field helped me with their advices, but I was also lucky enough to have a good gut feeling and make the right decisions in crucial moments. In addition, animals themselves taught me some lessons. For example, I was very surprised that during the experiment, there was a single incredible active individual, always in constant motion and trying to escape every time I opened its microcosm. Possibly, single woodlice also have distinct personalities! Maybe this is an interesting subject for future research…

About the Author

Ever since I can remember, nature and particularly animals are my passion. Thus, I decided very early to become a biologist. I did my Bachelor and Master at the University of Basel, and then moved for a short period to the private sector, working as an environmental consultant. However, as I missed research a lot, I started a PhD under the supervision of Dr. Francesco Pomati at Eawag/ETH Zurich. I’m currently working as a Postdoc in the group of Dr. Marco Moretti at WSL. My main interest is to understand the importance of individual-level trait variation for ecosystem-level processes, and I try to find general rules in ecology by applying similar methods across different systems.

Consequently, I’m particularly proud of results that bring me closer to fundamental mechanisms that might be relevant to the understanding of ecology as a whole. Furthermore, I appreciate unexpected results, and those that confirmed a hypothesis I was one of the few persons to consider as plausible. This brings to my “piece of advice for someone in my field”: be brave, think out of the box and pursue the craziest ideas. This is what makes science exciting!

In my spare time, I like organizing activities with my wife and children. Furthermore, I write short stories, poetry and song lyrics, enjoy art and nature, and play football.

You can read the paper here and the free plain language summary here.