A Few Problems Ecologists Need to Face

This is an overly simple attempt to look ahead, after a summer of extreme heat, extensive forest fires, overheated crops, and excessive flooding, to ask where we ecologists might be going in the next century. 

The first and most important point is that these disasters of the last several months can all be blamed on climate change, and despite what you hear, there is no stopping these changes in the next hundred years. CO2 enrichment is turning Earth into a hot planet. This is a simple fact of physics that the CO2 we have already emitted into our atmosphere will be there for hundreds to thousands of years. The politicians and the media will tell you that carbon-capture is coming soon to solve all our emission problems and cleanse the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gases. If you believe that, ask yourself if you would invest your capital and retirement account in a poker game for a decline in CO2 during the next 20 years.

The critical question for we ecologists is this: How much of the accumulated ecological wisdom will be unchanged in 100 years? If we have only to deal with changing climate, we could develop an understanding of what the limiting factors are and express the anticipated changes in the climatic units of the future. But that becomes a problem when we recognize that food webs have many interactions in them that are climate affected but perhaps not climatically determined. So, for example if we have a simple food web of polar bears feeding on seals, both of which require an ice pack for survival at the present time, what should we expect in 100 years when there is virtually no polar ice to be found. A simple model will predict that the polar bear will go extinct and perhaps seals will learn to use land instead of ice packs, but the fish that are the main food of the seals may also change if they depend on zooplankton that have a water temperature niche boundary that is exceeded. So exactly what will happen to this simple food web cannot be easily understood from current ecological wisdom or models.

Another example is from the current changing dynamics of Stellar sea lions of the North Pacific, summarized in an excellent review by Andrew Trites (2021). Stellar sea lions occupy the coastlines of the North Pacific from the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea eastward down the west coast of North America to southern California. Forty years ago, scientists noted a decline beginning in the western sea lion populations in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska and at the same time an increase in sea lion numbers from Southeast Alaska to California. Two explanations compete among seal experts to explain this pattern. The ‘overfishing hypothesis’ suggested that the Alaskan and Russian fishery has removed too much of the sea lion’s favourite food items and thus caused starvation among western sea lions. The alternative to this explanation, the ‘junk-food-hypothesis’ suggested that sea lions in the west were consuming too many fish species of low fat and fewer calories, and that their starvation was self-limited and not caused by the human fisheries.

Here is a “simple” ecological problem with 2 competing hypotheses or explanations that has not yet been resolved after many years of research. Empirical ecologists will possibly argue that we need to monitor the sea lions and their prey and the fishing catches over this extensive area for the next decade or two to find the answer as to which of the two competing hypothesis is closest to being correct. But given climate change and ocean warming, neither of which are uniform over all parts of the Earth, we would expect large changes in the abundance and distribution of many fish species and consequently also in the predators that depend on them. But exactly which ones, and exactly where? Conservation ecology is dogged by this problem and subsists largely by ignoring it in favour of short-term studies in small areas and the effects of human population growth, and perhaps this is all we can do at present. So, should “watch and wait, look and see” become our model? Wildlife and fisheries management thus become short-term ‘watch and wait’ sciences, like passengers on the Titanic long ago, wondering what the future holds.

One way to suggest future paths is to model the various communities and ecosystems that we study, and this activity is now strong in ecology and conservation. But there are many difficulties with this approach boiling down to a ‘wait-and-see’ method of empirical investigation. A review by Furtado (2020) of two books on fisheries management provides an up-to-date view of progress in fisheries ecology and illustrates problems with bluefin tuna management and the modelling approach to fish ecosystems in general. The problem in assuming the modelling approach as an answer to our dilemma is shown clearly by the current Covid pandemic and the reversals in modelling and alternative views that have caused much confusion despite much important research. Whither ecology from this point in time?

Furtado, Miguel (2020). The Future of Bluefin Tunas: Ecology, Fisheries Management and Conservation. Conservation Biology 34, 1600-1602.

Trites, A.W. (2021). Behavioral Insights into the Decline and Natural History of Steller Sea Lions. In ‘Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Otariids and the Odobenid, Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals,’. (Ed. C. Campagna and R. Harcourt), pp. 489-518. (Springer Nature Switzerland.)  doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-59184-7_23  

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