Evolution can happen rapidly and frequently. This realization has motivated a rethinking of ecological and evolutionary time-scales and their overlap, and stimulated research on processes at their interface. This premise lays at the heart of eco-evolutionary dynamics, a relatively recent field redeveloping how we conceive of ecological and evolutionary processes.
Classical evolutionary theory and empirical evidence has generally supported a gradualist view of evolution as occurring on much longer time-scales than ecological processes. The systematic documentation of rapid evolution beginning in the 1970s served as a catalyst to question this basic assumption. The commonness of rapid evolution suggests that ecological and evolutionary processes often occur at the same time-scale, which may allow them to interact.
As a new field, eco-evolutionary dynamics faces some important challenges. First, the field is primarily driven by theoretical research and empirical work on organisms with simple, short life cycles, typically animals, and mostly performed under controlled conditions. Secondly, it is unclear whether interactions between ecology and evolution are driven through a few common mechanisms, or whether all interactions are context dependent. Thirdly, there is a lack of eco-evolutionary research at higher organizational levels (e.g. ecosystem and landscape), although it is at those levels that the impact of evolution on our greatest conservation challenges may be most acute. Finally, it remains unclear how genetic diversity impacts eco-evolutionary dynamics, although the strong relationships between additive genetic variance, fitness and the speed of evolution suggest that it is important.
Summary. This Special Feature includes five research manuscripts expanding our knowledge of eco-evolutionary dynamics in plants and the organisms they interact with. Its contributors address the aforementioned challenges outlined above, ranging from demonstrating the impacts of genetic variation on plant and herbivore populations, to exploring the role of density in the evolution of plant life-history traits and to documenting genetic covariation among co-occurring communities. This Special Feature highlights the cutting-edge exploration of the dynamic effects of interacting ecological and evolutionary processes, including the potential for complex life histories to influence eco-evolutionary interactions, for common mechanisms to underlie most eco-evolutionary dynamics, for evolution to impact higher organizational levels and for genetic changes to cascade through communities.