Advancing ecology at the interface of theory and data

Although most of us are fundamentally empiricists, our approaches often have population models at their core, allowing rigorous links between theoretical concepts and the dynamics of field systems. As ecologists, we focus on the contemporary dynamics of populations and communities, though we are also increasingly interested in how rapid evolutionary change alters these dynamics.

Jonathan Levine

Jonathan Levine received his PhD in 2001 from UC Berkeley, where he studied the controls over plant invasions.  He was subsequently a postdoctoral researcher at the NERC Center for Population Biology at Imperial College, Silwood Park, where he studied mathematical models of species coexistence.  He was an Assistant Professor at UCLA, before moving in 2003 to UC Santa Barbara, where he served as Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor.  In 2011, Jonathan was appointed Professor of Plant Ecology at ETH Zurich, where he served until moving to Princeton University in 2019.  Jonathan’s research emphasizes the controls over species coexistence, plant migration and invasion, and how communities respond to climate change. 

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Jonathan Levine CV

Google Scholar

Professor Jonathan Levine

Lab Members

Theo Gibbs

PhD Student

Area of Interest: How ecological communities assemble and stably coexist, using theoretical ecology and datasets from varied biological systems

Tess Grainger

Postdoctoral Researcher

Area of Interest: Ecological and evolutionary processes that maintain diversity, and the effect that global change is having on these processes

Tess Grainger

Christopher A. Johnson

Postdoctoral Researcher

Area of Interest: How climate variability and species interactions influence eco-evolutionary dynamics by combining theory with empirical experiments

Johnson Ecology

Po-Ju Ke

Postdoctoral Researcher

Areas of Interest: Species coexistence, with a particular focus on how the interactions between plants and soil microbes affect plant community assembly

Google Scholar

Jacob Levine

PhD Student

Areas of Interest: How inter- and intra-species interactions facilitate co-existence and community function, and how those interactions scale and are affected by perturbations such as climate change.

Dylan MacArthur-Waltz

Research Technician

Areas of Interest: Climate change ecology, species interactions, and community ecology

Sebastian Block Munguia

PhD Student​

Area of Interest: Plant community responses to climate change

Block Ecology

Will Petry

Postdoctoral Researcher

Area of Interest: How species coexist in the face of fluctuating predation pressure and the diversity and stability of food webs.

Will Petry

  • Stephanie Yelenik, Ph.D. 2008, Scientist at USGS
  • Erin Mordecai, Ph.D. 2012, Faculty at Stanford University
  • Nicky Lustenhouwer, Ph.D. 2017, Postdoc at UC Santa Cruz
  • Peter Adler 2003-2006; Faculty at Utah State University
  • Janneke Hille Ris Lambers 2004-2006; Faculty at the University of Washington
  • Margaret Mayfield 2005-2007; Faculty at the University of Queensland
  • Louie Yang 2006-2008; Faculty at University of California, Davis
  • Elizaveta Pachepsky 2006-2010; Private Sector
  • Benjamin Gilbert 2008-2010; Faculty at the University of Toronto
  • Jennifer Williams 2011-2012; Faculty at the University of British Columbia
  • Nathan Kraft 2012; Faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles
  • Oscar Godoy 2010-2013; Faculty at the University of Cadiz
  • Jeff Diez 2011-2013; Faculty at University of California, Riverside
  • Emily Moran 2012-2014; Faculty at University of California, Merced
  • Monique De Jager 2013-2014; Postdoc at the University of Utrecht
  • Serguei Saavedra 2015; Faculty at MIT
  • Jake Alexander 2011-2016; Faculty at ETH Zurich (ERC Starting Grant)
  • Martin Turcotte 2014-2016; Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh
  • Jacob Usinowicz 2014-2019 Postdoc at the University of British Columbia
  • Simon Hart 2012-2018; Faculty at the University of Queensland
  • Andrew Letten 2018-2019; Faculty at the University of Queensland
  • Sabine Güsewell 2012-2018; Statistician, Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen


The maintenance of species diversity

How to explain the wide diversity of species we see in nature is one of the central challenges in all of ecology. Which factors prevent the single best competitor or best handful of competitors from displacing all other species from communities?

Over the last decade, our work has explored individual mechanisms of species coexistence, including for example, temporal storage effects, where species coexist by specializing on different types of climate years. We have also explored the collective importance of species’ niche differences for coexistence, challenging “neutral” explanations for species diversity maintenance.

Ongoing work in this area asks how plant functional traits and phylogeny can be used to predict species’ niche differences and competitive ability. We are also exploring how intraspecific variation influences competitive outcomes via its effects on demography, community drift, and evolution. More specifically, we are evaluating the potential for rapid evolutionary changes in competing populations to influence coexistence. In the broadest sense, we are interested in the factors regulating the outcome of competition, including mechanisms that range from plant-nutrient to plant-pathogen interactions.

Hart, S.P., M.M. Turcotte, and J.M. Levine. 2019. The effects of rapid evolution on species coexistence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116:2112-2117.

Levine, J.M., J. Bascompte, P.B. Adler, and S. Allesina. 2017. Beyond pairwise mechanisms of species coexistence in complex communities. Nature 546:56-64.

Plant community and ecosystem responses to climate change

Understanding how ecological communities respond to changing climate is an important goal for plant ecologists. Our work asks how species’ responses to climate depends on their interactions with competitors.

In past research, we have explored the effect of altered precipitation regimes on competition between invasive grasses and native California plants. This and other work explores how climate alters the interaction between species that co-occur today, yet some of the most dramatic impacts of altered competition are expected when climate change forces the interaction between species with no prior ecological history.

In an ongoing project in the Swiss Alps, we are exploring how novel competitors that migrate into communities with changing climate alter plant population persistence. A second emphasis of our climate change work concerns the role of early season events in controlling population and community dynamics. In work over the last decade, we have explored how the timing and temperature of the first rain storm in California’s Mediterranean climate, or the date of snowmelt in the Swiss Alps determine plant species’ phenology, demography, and coexistence.

Usinowicz, J. and J.M. Levine. 2018. Species persistence under climate change: a geographic scale coexistence problem. Ecology Letters 21:1589-1603.

Alexander, J.M., J.M. Diez, and J.M. Levine. 2015. Novel competitors shape species’ responses to climate change. Nature 525:515-518.

Controls over plant invasions

The spread and impact of plant invasions shed light on fascinating ecological processes with important implications for the management and conservation of natural areas.

Much of our ongoing work in this area uses models and experiments to explore the plant vital rates that contribute to population spread, and how these rates evolve in expanding populations. In a greenhouse experiment with Arabidopsis, we are evaluating how much faster invasions spread as a consequence of evolution during the spread process. Several projects are exploring the importance of genetic diversity and local adaptation for invasion along altitudinal and latitudinal gradients, and the invasion of new continents.

We are also exploring tradeoffs between plant vital rates important for spread (fecundity, time to maturity, dispersal), and where along those tradeoff curves plant populations spread the fastest. Finally, we are exploring the factors determining the outcome of competition between native and invasive species, with particular recent attention to the role of plant phenology. Much of this work uses plant invasions as a model system to predict how native populations will spread and evolve with climate change.

Alexander, J.A., and J.M. Levine. 2019. Earlier phenology of a nonnative plant increases impacts on native competitors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116:6199-6204.

Williams, J.L., B.E Kendall, and J.M. Levine. 2016. Rapid evolution accelerates plant population spread in fragmented experimental landscapes. Science 353: 482-485.



Advanced discussions of ecology, evolution, and behavior focus on 50 fundamental papers. Ecological topics include dynamics and structure of populations, communities, ecosystems, and conservation biology. Behavioral topics include instinct and learning, social behavior, physiological ecology, and the evolution of behavior. Evolutionary topics include speciation, evolutionary and quantitative genetics, molecular evolution, evolutionary stable strategies, and evolution of development.

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An examination of how life evolved and how organisms interact to shape the natural world. Why did the dinosaurs disappear? What mechanisms can produce the chameleon’s camouflage or the giraffe’s long neck? Why do ecosystems contain such a wide diversity of species when competition between them should eliminate all but a few? How will life on earth change with increasing human domination of the planet? These and other questions related to the origin and future of life, conflict and cooperation between species, and dynamics of ecosystems will be explored. This course is required for all EEB majors and fulfills a requirement for medical school.

Course Details >

Join the Lab

The accomplishments of our postdocs and graduate students are a key measure of achievement for our group, and our former members have gone on to top ecology faculty positions world-wide. Applicants should aim to work at the interface of experiments and theory to tackle questions related to the maintenance of species diversity, the controls over plant invasions, or plant community response to climate change. Plant ecology experience is desired but not essential. 

Regardless of whether we are currently advertising a position, postdoctoral candidates with a relevant research background, and accomplishments comparable to current members (after adjusting for academic age) should email Jonathan, including a CV. Potential doctoral students with strong academic records (ideally, with at least one paper in or through the review process) should similarly send an email indicating their interest.


Faculty Assistant

Ksenia Rodionova



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