BIOL424-24S2 (C) Semester Two 2024

Community Ecology

15 points

Start Date: Monday, 15 July 2024
End Date: Sunday, 10 November 2024
Withdrawal Dates
Last Day to withdraw from this course:
  • Without financial penalty (full fee refund): Sunday, 28 July 2024
  • Without academic penalty (including no fee refund): Sunday, 29 September 2024


To develop skills in the critique of literature and formulation and testing of hypotheses within the field of community ecology.

The aim of this course is to investigate fundamental aspects of community ecology—the study of interactions between two or more species and their environment.  The course will be of value to anyone interested in biodiversity, global environmental change, and ecological theory.  Major themes include food web ecology, metacommunities, determinants of community structure, community assembly, species interactions in diverse assemblages, and threats to biodiversity.  Given the strong conceptual basis of the course material, we will often present topics via a mix of both theoretical (modelling) and empirical research when possible. Although a strong background in mathematics isn’t required, we do expect that you will make an earnest effort to dissect equations and models and be able to explain what they show in plain English.  During the course, each student will do an independent research project that require basic skills in management, organization, and exploration of data, as well as graphical and statistical analyses (i.e., matching skills taught in Biol209 and Biol309).

Recommended preparatory course(s): BIOL377, BIOL378 or BIOL375

Learning Outcomes

  • As a student in this course, I will develop the ability to:
  • Understand the interplay between theoretical and empirical approaches to community ecology (GP1, GP2).
  • Link an understanding of the structure and function of diverse assemblages with the fundamental ecological theories that underpin this structure (GP1, GP2).  
  • Be able to critically review scientific literature, including theoretical studies (GP1, GP2).
  • Develop the intellectual freedom to think critically about scientific issues (GP1, GP2).  
  • Understand the keys to formulating research questions (GP1, GP2).  
  • Be able to synthesise, using evidence and reasoning, ecological concepts from basic principles (GP1, GP2).  

    Transferable Skills Register / Pūkenga Ngaio
    As a student in this course, I will develop the following skills:
  • Performing original research. From the outside, undertaking original research can appear straightforward but the reality is anything but. By conducting a research project, the student will understand the ins and outs of research - including its pitfalls - in a direct fashion, better preparing them for the challenges ahead in a work environment (GP1, GP2).  
  • Critically reviewing and synthesising information. In everyday life and in many job situations you will be required to read information from different sources, construct your own understanding and shape your own viewpoint. In tutorials, we will discuss recent and/or classic research papers in a group environment and this will develop your abilities to identify the essential elements of research outputs and to build upon them in your own project (GP1, GP2).  
  • Written and verbal communication. Clear written communication is essential for most professional careers and communicating verbally to a range of audiences is also critical in any area of endeavour (GP1, GP2).

    Graduate profile / Āhuatanga aura
    This course will provide students with an opportunity to develop these UC Graduate Attributes
  • GP1 Critically competent in a core academic discipline.
  • GP2 Employable, innovative and enterprising.
  • GP3 Biculturally competent and confident


Subject to approval of the Head of School.



Timetable 2024

Students must attend one activity from each section.

Lecture A
Activity Day Time Location Weeks
01 Monday 15:00 - 16:00 Jack Erskine 241
15 Jul - 21 Jul
Tutorial A
Activity Day Time Location Weeks
01 Tuesday 15:00 - 17:00 Jack Erskine 111
22 Jul - 25 Aug
9 Sep - 15 Sep

Timetable Note

Tutorial Topics and Timetable / Wātaka

Each of six seminars will run for 2h. Proposed topics are listed below.

Tutorial number and topic Run by
*Course orientation meeting Mads (July 19)
1, Overview of community ecology and projects Mads (July 26)
2. Simple indirect species interactions Mads (August 2)
3. Community stability Daniel (August 9)
4. Coexistence Daniel (August 16)
5. Metacommunities Jono (August 23)
6. Network ecology Jono (September 13)

Course Coordinator / Lecturer

Mads Thomsen


Jonathan Tonkin and Daniel Stouffer


Talking points - 10% (mandatory)
By 9 am the morning of each seminar, you must submit (via Learn) a brief critical assessment for each paper in the readings. At a minimum, this should be three points:  
• At least one strength.  
• At least one untested assumption or design flaw in the study that undermines the conclusions.  
• At least one new question that arises from their results.
During each seminar, you should ‘self-evaluate’ by comparing your own assessment to the assessment highlighted and discussed by the other students and the lecturer.

Project outline – 5%  
To ensure you think of a research project topic early and get early feedback, you will be required to submit an outline of your project by the end of the fourth week of the course.

Research project – 45%  
In science, a key skill is the ability to analyse a new dataset and write a research paper. The major in-term assessment is to analyse novel community data and write a scientific paper following the format of a Research article in Ecology (no more than ~5000 words in length, including tables, figure legends, abstract, and references). Several datasets are available to choose from - but different novel community data may alternatively (after consultation with the lecturers) be identified and analysed by motivated students. More details will be given in class and can be found on the course Learn page.

Examination - 40%
This will be a 24-hr take-home exam that will be submitted online. Date and time will be confirmed in consultation with the class. You will write a peer review of ONE out of three provided scientific papers, outlining the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.

Textbooks / Resources

Reference Material
There is no textbook for this course. You will be assigned a series of readings from the scientific literature. The readings will be listed on Learn by the lecturers at least one week before the seminar. Students are expected to have read the material and submit their Talking points sheets, and to be prepared to discuss the papers by the start of each seminar.


Feedback from 2019 course survey (62% response; 5 out of 8)
1. Materials provided helped me understand what was required to succeed in this course 3.4
2. The organisation of this course helped me learn 3.6
3. Workload was appropriate to the level of the course   3.8                                                
4. Assessments were appropriate for the course   3.2                                                          
5. Where I sought feedback on my assessments, I found it helpful  3.2                                  

The following issues were raised in written feedback by students as part of the course survey.

Positive features
- The two paper seminar format was good for critically analyzing and pulling apart papers.
- For the seminars I believe the workload was appropriate.

Negative features (Action/response indicated below)
- I would have appreciated a more detailed handout for the assignment.
o We have added information about the Research Project to the course handouts. We have also added information about the Research Project to both the Course orienteering meeting and the first seminar. Finally, we encourage students to setup meetings with the teachers to discuss specific issues related to their completion of the Research Project.
- Weekly having different tutors might be useful in undergraduate courses, however it felt disjointed for a post grad class, and I didn't feel a strong undercurrent/theme from the course due to this.
o Community ecology is a complex research field with a bewildering number of theories and frameworks and this level of complexity can be confusing and intimidating for new graduate students. We have changed the first class to focus on this topic to better prepare the student for what he/she will encounter in the course and future graduate studies.  We have also reduced the number of teachers from 4 to 3 to facilitate better student-teacher interactions. Finally, we now include discussions in the seminars about how the different topics link to each other.
- Would have appreciated just a sentence on each of the strengths and weakness weekly assignment, to inform on how my interpretation was going, doesn't have to be marked, but a tiny bit of feedback would have been appreciated.
o We discuss, in detail, strengths and weakness of research papers in the seminars and expect students to actively participate in the seminar. We therefore expect each student to cross-check her/his own comment with comments raised in the class discussion (i.e., we expect students to self-evaluate his/hers own comments and bring up, in class, issues related to lack of understanding). We also encourage students to take initiative and setup meetings with teachers for more specific evaluations of his/hers understanding of the seminar discussions.

The course is constantly being refined and updated, and students should see the benefits of this.  Note that basic skills in data analysis, data management, graphical data analysis, statistical tests, and usage of Excel and statistical software (like r) is expected. These skills are essential to complete the Research Project.

Indicative Fees

Domestic fee $1,145.00

* All fees are inclusive of NZ GST or any equivalent overseas tax, and do not include any programme level discount or additional course-related expenses.

For further information see School of Biological Sciences .

All BIOL424 Occurrences

  • BIOL424-24S2 (C) Semester Two 2024