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Parking Lot Community Ecology

Lili is a Ph.D. student in Theoretical Ecology at the University of Michigan. She has a Masters from the University of Arizona.

The Problem of Vocabulary in Ecology

As a Ph.D. student in ecology, I frequently encounter undergraduate students who get bogged down by the weird mixture of formal and informal language that plagues ecology. "Community" seems like a word we all know, right? But in ecology, the word "community" formally refers to "a group of actually or potentially interacting species living in the same place," which means that community ecologists study the ways species interact, the way they inhabit space, and the way species' populations change over time. On the other, even though "congeners" is biological jargon, it actually has a simple definition. "Congeners" are species of the same genus, meaning that they are very closely related and thus probably have similar traits.

Below, I give a pretty silly description of the community ecology of my parking lot (spoiler alert: I share a parking lot with a fraternity!), that uses formal ecological language. I consider different styles of cars to be different species.Then I propose some research questions given my observations. This is a fun way to build an intuition for ecological concepts and illustrates how formal jargon can be used to make any piece of writing sound elitist. Enjoy!

PIGMAN1 keeps taking my parking spot.

I'm being out-competed in my own territory and I'm angry about it.

An invader of my parking lot territory

An invader of my parking lot territory

My Parking Lot as an Ecological Community

My home parking habitat is a dirt lot bordering the neighboring fraternity’s parking territory. The habitats are nearly indistinguishable. My home parking population of cars could be described as stable. Immigration is approximately equal to emigration, there are minimal population fluctuations, and resource usage (space—undivided into parking spaces) is maximized so that every member of the population (each car) has sufficient resources. Since my home population is composed mostly of mid-sized sedans whereas the fraternity’s population is nearly exclusively composed of large trucks with vanity plates (e.g. ‘PIGMAN1’), this situation can be best described as congeners competing for the same resource. In times of stability, the territory of each species is preserved. Thus, the resource is spatially partitioned.

However, there are strong fluctuations in the fraternity’s population. During times of high fraternity population, invasion of the home parking lot by fraternity vehicles occurs. The fraternity population appears to have higher fitness than the home population: the fraternity has much bigger vehicles and uses much more aggressive parking techniques. However, the fraternity trucks may use resources (space, fuel) less efficiently, so to be conclusive, fitness will need to be investigated more in the future. Home cars are adapted to prefer the home lot whereas fraternity trucks appear to use the resource much more opportunistically. Increased interspecific competition with the fraternity appears to result in increased intraspecific competition in the home population.

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Potential Research Questions

This leads to two questions:

  1. Will the home population develop adaptations (e.g. passive aggressive notes, verbal confrontations, appeal to higher authority, home cars parking closer together to prevent resource consumption by the larger fraternity trucks) via directional selection to become more competitive, resulting in extirpation of invader and maintenance of the spatially-partitioned niche? Alternatively, will the home population be extirpated by the invaders?
  2. Can the two populations coexist? This could occur via (a) emigration from the population (moving to new parking lot territories) or “deaths” (towing or totaling) in one or both populations so that there is adequate resource available for both populations or (b) temporal resource partitioning via the storage effect (Chesson 2000). In order to know if (b) is possible, it will be necessary to determine whether the long lived individuals (cars that stay parked for a long consecutive period) are maintained through times when the fraternity population spikes in numbers.


A basic primer on community ecology:

“Ecological Communities: Networks of Interacting Species.” Global Change Ecology, University of Michigan,

An influential paper on the storage effect:

Chesson, Peter. “General Theory of Competitive Coexistence in Spatially-Varying Environments.” Theoretical Population Biology, vol. 58, no. 3, 2000, pp. 211–237. doi:10.1006/tpbi.2000.1486.

Don't have access to a library from a research institute?

Leave a comment--and I'll send you the papers I've referenced and any supplemental reading material you are interested in!

© 2018 Lili Adams

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