Ecological research falls into five broad classes or stages. Each stage has its strengths and its limitations, and it is important to recognize these since no one stage is more or less important than any other. I suggest a classification of these five stages as follows:
- Natural History
- Behavioural Ecology
- Applied Ecology
- Conservation Ecology
- Ecosystem Ecology
The Natural History stage is the most popular with the public and in some sense the simplest type of ecological research while at the same time the critical foundation of all subsequent research. Both Bartholomew (1986) and Dayton (2003) made impassioned pleas for the study of natural history as a basis of understanding all the biological sciences. In some sense this stage of biological science has now come into its own in popularity, partly because of influential TV shows like those of David Attenborough but also because of the ability of talented wildlife photographers to capture amazing moments of animals in the natural world. Many scientists still look upon natural history as “stamp-collecting” unworthy of a serious ecologist, but this stage is the foundational element of all ecological research.
Behavioural ecology became popular as one of the early outcomes of natural history observations within the broad framework of asking questions about how individuals in a population behave, and what the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these behaviours are to adaptation and possible future evolution. One great advantage of studying behavioural ecology has been that it is quick, perfectly suited to asking simple questions, devising experimental tests, and then being able to write a report, or a thesis on these results (Davies et al. 2012). Behavioural ecology is one of the strongest research areas of ecological science and provides entertainment for students of natural history and excellent science to understand individual behaviour and how it fits into population studies. It is perhaps the strongest of the ecological approaches for drawing the public into an interest in biodiversity.
Applied ecology is one of the oldest fields of ecology since it arose more than 100 years ago from local problems of how organisms affected human livelihoods. It has subdivided into three important sub-fields – pest management, wildlife management, and fisheries management. Applied ecology relies heavily on the principles of population ecology, one level above the individual studies of behavioural and natural history research. These fields are concerned with population changes, whether to reduce populations to stop damage to crops, or to understand why some species populations become pests. All applied ecology heavily interreacts with human usage of the environment and the economics of farming, fisheries, and wildlife harvesting. In a general sense applied ecology is a step more difficult than behavioural ecology because answering the applied problems or management has a longer time frame than the typical three-year thesis project. Applied ecology has a broad interface with evolutionary ecology because human actions can disrupt natural selection and pest evolution can complicate every management problem.
Conservation ecology is the new kid on the block. It was part of wildlife and fisheries management until about 1985 when it was clear to all that some populations were endangered by human changes to the ecosystems of fisheries, forestry, and agriculture. The essential problems of conservation ecology were described elegantly by Caughley (1994). Conservation issues are the most visible of all issues in population and community ecology, and they are often the most difficult to resolve when science dictates one conservation solution that interferes with the dominant economic view of human society. If species of interest are rare the problem is further confounded by the difficulty of studying rare species in the field. What will become of the earth’s ecosystems in the future depends in large part as to how these conservation conflicts can be resolved.
Ecosystem ecology and community ecology are the important focus at present but are hampered by a lack of a clear vision of what needs to be done and what can be done. The problem is partly that there is much poor theory, coupled with much poor data. The critical questions in ecosystem ecology are currently too vague to be studied in a realistic time period of less than 50 years. Climate change is impacting all our current ideas about community stability and resilience, and what predictions we can make for whole ecosystems in the light of a poor database. Ironically experimental manipulations are being done by companies with an economic focus such as forestry but there are few funds to make use of these large-scale landscape changes. In the long term, ecosystem ecology is the most significant aspect of ecology for humans, but it is the weakest in terms of understanding ecosystem processes. We can all see the negative effects of human changes on landscapes, but we have little in the way of scientific guidance to predict the long-term consequences of these changes and how they can be successfully ameliorated.
All of this is distressing to practical ecologists who wish to make a difference and be able to counteract undesirable changes in populations and ecosystems. It is important for all of us not to give up on reversing negative trends in conservation and land management and we need to do all we can to influence the public in general and politicians in particular to change negative trends to positive ones in our world. An array of good books points this out very forcefully (e.g., Monbiot 2018, Klein 2021). It is the job of every ecologist to gather the data and present ecological science to the community at large so we can contribute to decision making about the future of the Earth.
Bartholomew, G. A. (1986). The role of natural history in contemporary biology. BioScience 36, 324-329. doi: 10.2307/1310237
Caughley, G. (1994). Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63, 215-244. doi: 10.2307/5542
Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R., and West, S.A. (2012) ‘An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology.‘ 4th edn. (Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.). 520 pp.
Dayton, P.K. (2003). The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist 162, 1-13. doi: 10.1086/376572
Klein, Naomi (2021) ‘How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other ‘ (Simon and Schuster: New York.) 336 pp. ISBN: 978-1534474529
Monbiot, George. (2018) ‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.’ (Verso.). 224 pp. ISBN: 1786632896
Hi Charley and Judy,
This is a thought-provoking post but I remain unconvinced ecological research can be put into such neat and discrete boxes like this, and perhaps we don’t need to nor want to? There are great examples of impactful research and outcomes that span several/most of the categories you’ve suggested.
All the best,
Euan – I take you point, and perhaps the concise message is that to do really significant ecological research one must bridge 2 or 3 or more of these artificial classes. My concern is that in my opinion too many ecology papers do not see this broader picture. Possibly this is forced on them by the need to do 3 year theses, and by research councils thinking that 3-5 year grants can solve a complex ecological problem. So thanks, good point and I agree. Keep up the good work. Charley