Research on ecosystem connectivity has traditionally relied on species dispersal (structural connectivity), although this is only one of the many uses of space that allow species to connect different environments. Such long-term movements, typically occurring once along the species life-cycle, relate mostly to population connectivity, and are generally used to describe the spatial structure of populations and, in few cases, their demography. However, other types of movement, taking place several times along an organism life cycle, such as migration and foraging, are also essential to connect communities and ecosystems and are critical for their functioning and overall stability. This is demonstrated through Figure A below (left side), where overlap exists among the frequency, temporal and spatial scales at which different types of movement occur along an organism life-cycle. Frequency and temporal scales relate to the lifespan, indicating how many times a type of movement occurs and its duration respectively. The spatial axis is relative to the individual distributional range.
These dynamic movement types cover a wider range of spatial and temporal scales and can potentially turn structurally disconnected areas into functionally connected. This is demonstrated in Figure B above (right side), which shows an example of disconnected ecosystems (a), structurally connected ecosystems (b), functionally connected ecosystems (c), and how ecosystems could be structurally connected but functionally disconnected (d). In fact, the complexity of ecosystem processes requires moving beyond species connectivity to investigate functional connectivity, understanding “function” as a specified ecological role. (Figure B adapted from Project Scales)
The EuroMarine-funded foresight workshop TUTTI will work towards a framework that does allow a close interaction between research in structural and functional connectivity and ecosystem dynamics, combining modelling and empiricist expertise. It will bring together experts in dispersal, migration, trophic ecology and ecosystem modelling and draw on their knowledge to foster efficient collaboration and pinpoint the knowledge gaps to be filled in the short to medium term in order to effectively incorporate functional connectivity within the agenda for ecosystems management and stewardship.
TUTTI will pursue the following four key objectives in order to build towards the target framework:
- Identify relevant ecological functions connecting communities and ecosystems.
- Characterising the main pathways and the relevant scales at which functional connectivity gains ecological efficiency and/or relevance from a management perspective.
- Work towards achieving the required level of homogeneity in measuring functional connectivity by addressing scalability issues.
- Discuss the methodological challenges and opportunities in the development of marine functional connectivity.
Several outcomes are expected from TUTTI:
- The creation of a multidisciplinary network with expertise and interest in embracing demographic and functional ecology that allows comparative studies across ecosystems.
- The publication of a food-for-thought article highlighting the main workshop conclusions and depicting a roadmap for incorporating functional connectivity in predictive studies and potentially into the management agenda.
- The identification of potential national and international funding opportunities to develop projects which advance the knowledge in the field of functional connectivity.
It is expected that the understanding of functional connectivity achieved within TUTTI will constitute a stepping stone upon which to start assessing the effect of cumulative human pressures on functional connectivity. Eventually, this impact will help contribute to the better management of the multidimensional complexity of our marine ecosystems.