In Praise of Long Term Studies

I have been fortunate this week to have had a tour of the Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in central Kansas. Kansas State University has run this LTER site for about the last 30 years with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA. Whoever set up this program in NSF so many years ago deserves the praise of all ecologists for their foresight, and the staff of KSU who have managed the Konza site should be given our highest congratulations for their research plan and their hard work.

The tall grass prairie used to occupy much of the central part of the temperate zone of North America from Canada to Texas. There is almost none of it left, in Kansas about 1% of the original area with the rest given over to agriculture and grazing. The practical person sees this as progress through the lens of dollar bills, the ecologist sees it as a biodiversity catastrophe. The big questions for the tall-grass prairie are clear and apply to many ecosystems: What keeps this community going? Is it fire or grazing or both in some combination? If fire is too frequent, what are the consequences for the plant community of tall-grass prairie, not to mention the aquatic community of fishes in the streams and rivers? How can shrub and tree encroachment be prevented? All of these questions are under investigation, and the answers are clear in general but uncertain in many details about effects on particular species of birds or forbs.

It strikes me that ecology very much needs more LTER programs. To my knowledge Canada and Australia have nothing like this LTER program that NSF funds. We need to ask why this is, and whether this money could be used much better for other kinds of ecological research. To my mind ecology is unique among the hard sciences in requiring long term studies, and this is because the ecological world is not an equilibrial system in the way we thought 50 years ago. Environments change, species geographical ranges change, climate varies, and all of this on top of the major human impacts on the Earth. So we need to ask questions like why is the tall grass prairie so susceptible to shrub and tree encroachment now when it apparently was not this way 200 years ago? Or why are polar bears now threatened in Hudson’s Bay when they thrived there for the last 1000 or more years? The simple answer is that the ecosystem has changed, but the ecologist wants to know how and why, so that we have some idea if these changes can be managed.

By contrast with ecological systems, physics and chemistry deal with equilibrial systems. So nobody now would investigate whether the laws of gravitation have changed in the last 30 years, and you would be laughed out of the room by physical scientists for even asking such a question and trying to get a research grant to answer this question. Continuous system change is what makes ecology among the most difficult of the hard sciences. Understanding the ecosystem dynamics of the tall-grass prairie might have been simpler 200 years ago, but is now complicated by landscape alteration by agriculture, nitrogen deposition from air pollution, the introduction of weeds from overseas, and the loss of large herbivores like bison.

Long-term studies always lead us back to the question of when we can quit such studies. There are two aspects of this issue. One is scientific, and that question is relatively easy to answer – stop when you find there are no important questions left to pursue. But this means we must have some mental image of what ‘important’ questions are (itself another issue needing continuous discussion). Scientists typically answer this question with their intuition, but not everyone’s intuition is identical. The other aspect leads us into the monitoring question – should we monitor ecosystems? The irony of this question is that we monitor the weather, and we do so because we do not know the future. So the same justification can be made for ecosystem monitoring which should be as much a part of our science as weather monitoring, human health monitoring, or stock market monitoring are to our daily lives. The next level of discussion, once we agree that monitoring is necessary, is how much money should go into ecological monitoring? The current answer in general seems to be only a little, so we stumble on with too few LTER sites and inadequate knowledge of where we are headed, like cars driving at night with weak headlights. We should do better.

A few of the 186 papers listed in the Web of Science since 2010 that include reference to Konza Prairie data:

Raynor, E.J., Joern, A. & Briggs, J.M. (2014) Bison foraging responds to fire frequency in nutritionally heterogeneous grassland. Ecology, 96, 1586-1597. doi: 10.1890/14-2027.1

Sandercock, B.K., Alfaro-Barrios, M., Casey, A.E., Johnson, T.N. & Mong, T.W. (2015) Effects of grazing and prescribed fire on resource selection and nest survival of upland sandpipers in an experimental landscape. Landscape Ecology, 30, 325-337. doi: 10.1007/s10980-014-0133-9

Ungerer, M.C., Weitekamp, C.A., Joern, A., Towne, G. & Briggs, J.M. (2013) Genetic variation and mating success in managed American plains bison. Journal of Heredity, 104, 182-191. doi: 10.1093/jhered/ess095

Veach, A.M., Dodds, W.K. & Skibbe, A. (2014) Fire and grazing influences on rates of riparian woody plant expansion along grassland streams. PLoS ONE, 9, e106922. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106922

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