Indexed on: 30 Aug '14Published on: 30 Aug '14Published in: Ecology Letters
Resource specialisation, although a fundamental component of ecological theory, is employed in disparate ways. Most definitions derive from simple counts of resource species. We build on recent advances in ecophylogenetics and null model analysis to propose a concept of specialisation that comprises affinities among resources as well as their co-occurrence with consumers. In the distance-based specialisation index (DSI), specialisation is measured as relatedness (phylogenetic or otherwise) of resources, scaled by the null expectation of random use of locally available resources. Thus, specialists use significantly clustered sets of resources, whereas generalists use over-dispersed resources. Intermediate species are classed as indiscriminate consumers. The effectiveness of this approach was assessed with differentially restricted null models, applied to a data set of 168 herbivorous insect species and their hosts. Incorporation of plant relatedness and relative abundance greatly improved specialisation measures compared to taxon counts or simpler null models, which overestimate the fraction of specialists, a problem compounded by insufficient sampling effort. This framework disambiguates the concept of specialisation with an explicit measure applicable to any mode of affinity among resource classes, and is also linked to ecological and evolutionary processes. This will enable a more rigorous deployment of ecological specialisation in empirical and theoretical studies.