Tag Archives: ecosystem dynamics

On A Global Agenda for Ecology

Reading the ecology literature now I am excited by the papers that are filling in small gaps in our understanding of population and community ecology. Good work indeed. But I am concerned more about the big picture – what would we like ecological science to show to the world in 50 years as our achievements? There are two aspects of this question. At present the findings of ecological research are presented in the media mostly as what could be coarsely described as ecological trivia, light entertainment. We must continue to do this as it is an important part of keeping the public aware of environmental issues. The second aspect of our public face is the bigger issue of how we can make the future world a better place. This part is a global agenda for ecology that should be the background focus of all our research. So what should be our global agenda?

We could call it global change. Specifically, how will our ecological systems change as a joint consequence of climate change and human disturbances? So look out the window to any natural landscape where you live and ask how much we now know that will allow you to predict what that scene will be like in a century or so. We should be able to make this prediction more easily with human disturbed landscapes that with those driven by environmental change, but I am not sure everyone would agree with this hypothesis. We will probably know that if we continue to overgraze a grassland, we will end with a weed infested wasteland or even bare soil. Consequently, a rational management agency should be able to prevent this degradation. These kinds of change should be easy to manage yet we as a society continue to degrade ecosystems all over the globe. Is there an general index for degradation for the countries of the world, so we could add it to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, freshwater contamination, overharvesting of fish and timber, and a host of other environmental indicators that are useful to the public?

The consequences of climate change are the most difficult to understand and possibly manage. We have lived in a dream world of a stable environment, and the mathematical gurus focus on stability as a sine qua non. Change in a system that is well understood should be predictable both in the short term of 50 years and in the long term of 500 years. But we are not there yet. We work hard on the pieces – is the bird population of this particular national park going up or down?, how rapidly are peat bogs releasing CO2 under current changing climate? – but these details while important do not allow one to predict whole ecosystem shifts. more rapidly. What do we need to do as ecologists to achieve a broad consensus on global issues?

Sutherland et al. (2013, 2018) have made a heroic attempt both to recognize fundamental ecological questions and to identify emerging issues in a broader societal framework. This helps us to focus on both specific ecological issues as well as emerging global problems. One useful recommendation that could proceed from these reviews would be a specific journal that would review each year a small number of these questions or issues that would serve as a progress bar on increasing understanding of ecological unknowns.

A personal example might focus the problem. My colleagues, students, and I have been working in the Yukon boreal forest at Kluane for 46 years now, trying to understand community dynamics. The ecosystem moves slowly because of the cold climate, so in the short term of 50 years we cannot see there will be much significant change. But this is more of a guess than a solid prediction because a catastrophe – fire, insect attacks – could reset the system on a different pathway. The long term (500 year) trajectory for this ecosystem is much harder to predict, except to say that it will be driven largely by the climate-vegetation axis, and this is the link in ecosystem dynamics that we understand least. We cannot assume stability or equilibrium dynamics in boreal forests, and while paleo-ecologists have given us a good understanding of past changes in similar ecosystems, the past is not necessarily a good guide to future long-term changes. So I think a critic could well say that we have failed our attempt to understand our boreal forest ecosystem and be able to predict its trajectory, even though we have more than 300 papers describing how parts of this system interact.

My concern is that as we make progress with the pieces of the ecology puzzle we more and more lose sight of the final goals, and we are lost in the details of local ecosystems. Does this simply mean that we have an ecological ‘Red Queen’ that we will forever be chasing? Perhaps that is both the fundamental joy and the fundamental frustration of working on changing ecological systems. In the meantime, enjoy slaying the unknowns of local, specific ecosystems and on occasion look back to see how far we have come.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101(1): 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33(1): 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.


On the Loss of Large Mammals

The loss of large mammals and birds in the Pleistocene was highlighted many years ago (Martin and Wright 1967, Grayson 1977, Guthrie 1984 and many other papers). Hypotheses about why these extinctions occurred were flying left and right for many years with no clear consensus (e.g. Choquenot and Bowman 1998). The museums of the world are filled with mastodons, moas, sabre-tooth tigers and many other skeletons of large mammals and birds long extinct. The topic has come up again in a discussion of these extinctions and a prognosis of future losses (Smith et al. 2018). I do not want to question the analysis in Smith et al. (2018) but I want to concentrate on this one quotation that has captured the essence of this paper in the media:

“Because megafauna have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function, past and present body size downgrading is reshaping Earth’s biosphere.”
(pg. 310).

What is the evidence for this very strong statement? The first thought that comes to mind is from my botanical colleagues who keep reminding me that plants make of 99% of the biomass of the Earth’s ecosystems. So, if this statement is correct, it must mean that large mammals have a very strong effect on plant ecosystem structure and function. And it must also imply that large mammals are virtually immune to predators, so no trophic cascade can occur to prevent plant overgrazing.

I appreciate that it is very difficult to test such a statement since evolution has been going on for a long time before humans arrived, and so there must have been a lot of other factors causing ecosystem changes in those early years. Humans have a disproportionate love for biodiversity that is larger than us. So, we revel in elephants, tigers, bears, and whales, while at the same time we pay little attention to the insects, small mammals, most fish, and plankton. Because of this size bias, we are greatly concerned with the conservation of large animals, as we should be, but much less concerned about what is happening to the small chaps.

What is the evidence that large mammals and birds have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function? In my experience, I would say there is very little evidence for strong ecosystem effects from the collapse of the megafauna. DeMaster et al. (2006) evaluated a proposed explanation for ecosystem collapse caused by whaling in the North Pacific Ocean and concluded that the evidence was weak for a sequential megafauna collapse caused by commercial whaling. Trites et al. (2007) and Wade et al. (2007) supported this conclusion. Citing paleo-ecological data for Australia, Johnson (2010) and Rule et al. (2012) argued in another evaluation of ecosystem changes that the human-driven extinction of the megafauna in Australia resulted in large changes in plant communities, potentially confounded by climate change and increases in fire frequency about 40K years ago. If we accept these controversies, we are left with trying to decide if the current losses of large mammals are of similar strength to those assigned to the Pleistocene megafauna, as suggested by Smith et al. (2018).

If we define ecosystem function as primary productivity and ecosystem structure as species diversity, I cannot think of a single case in recent studies where this idea has been clearly tested and supported. Perhaps this simply reflects my biased career working in arctic and subarctic ecosystems in which the vast majority of the energy flow in the system rotates through the smaller species rather than the larger ones. Take the Great Plains of North America with and without the bison herds. What aspect of ecosystem function has changed because of their loss? It is impossible to say because of human intervention in the fire cycle and agricultural pre-emption of much of the landscape. It is certainly correct that overgrazing impacts can be severe in human-managed landscapes with overstocking of cattle and sheep, and that is a tragedy brought on by economics, predator elimination programs, and human land use decisions. All the changes we can describe with paleo-ecological methods have potential explanations that are highly confounded.

I think the challenge is this: to demonstrate that the loss of large mammals at the present time creates a large change in ecosystem structure and function with data on energy flow and species diversity. The only place I can see it possible to do this experimentally today would be in arctic Canada where, at least in some areas, caribou come and go in large numbers and with relatively little human impact. I doubt that you could detect any large effect in this hypothetical experiment. It is the little chaps that matter to ecosystem function, not the big chaps that we all love so much. And I would worry if you could do this experiment, the argument would be that it is a special case of extreme environments not relevant to Africa or Australia.

No one should want the large mammals and birds to disappear, but the question of how this might play out in the coming 200 years in relation to ecosystem function requires more analysis. And unlike the current political inactivity over the looming crisis in climate change, we conservation biologists should certainly try to prevent the loss of megafauna.

Choquenot, D., and Bowman, D.M.J.S. 1998. Marsupial megafauna, Aborigines and the overkill hypothesis: application of predator-prey models to the question of Pleistocene extinction in Australia. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters 7: 167-180.

DeMaster, D.P., Trites, A.W., Clapham, P., Mizroch, S., Wade, P., Small, R.J., and Hoef, J.V. 2006. The sequential megafaunal collapse hypothesis: testing with existing data. Progress in Oceanography 68(2-4): 329-342. doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2006.02.007

Grayson, D.K. 1977. Pleistocene avifaunas and the Overkill Hypothesis. Science 195: 691-693.

Guthrie, R.D. 1984. Mosaics, allelochemics and nutrients: An ecological theory of late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. In: Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution ed by P.S. Martin and R.G. Klein. University of Arizona Press Tucson.

Johnson, C.N. 2010. Ecological consequences of Late Quaternary extinctions of megafauna. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London, Series B 276(1667): 2509-2519. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1921.

Martin, P.S., and Wright, H.E. (eds). 1967. Pleistocene Extinctions; The Search for a Cause. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 453 pp.

Rule, S., Brook, B.W., Haberle, S.G., Turney, C.S.M., Kershaw, A.P., and Johnson, C.N. 2012. The aftermath of megafaunal extinction: ecosystem transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science 335(6075): 1483-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1214261.

Smith, F.A., Elliott Smith, R.E., Lyons, S.K., and Payne, J.L. 2018. Body size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary. Science 360(6386): 310-313. doi: 10.1126/science.aao5987.

Trites, A.W., Deecke, V.B., Gregr, E.J., Ford, J.K.B., and Olesiuk, P.F. 2007. Killer whales, whaling, and sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific: a comparative analysis of the dynamics of marine mammals in Alaska and British Columbia following commercial whaling. Marine Mammal Science 23(4): 751-765. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2006.00076.x.

Wade, P.R., et al. 2007. Killer whales and marine mammal trends in the North Pacific – a re-examination of evidence for sequential megafaunal collapse and the prey-switching hypothesis. Marine Mammal Science 23(4): 766-802. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2006.00093.x.

On Mauna Loa and Long-Term Studies

If there is one important element missing in many of our current ecological paradigms it is long-term studies. This observation boils down to the lack of proper controls for our observations. If we do not know the background of our data sets, we lack critical perspective on how to interpret short-term studies. We should have learned this from paleoecologists whose many studies of plant pollen profiles and other time series from the geological record show that models of stability which occupy most of the superstructure of ecological theory are not very useful for understanding what is happening in the real world today.

All of this got me wondering what it might have been like for Charles Keeling when he began to measure CO2 levels on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1958. Let us do a thought experiment and suggest that he was at that time a typical postgraduate students told by his professors to get his research done in 4 or at most 5 years and write his thesis. These would be the basic data he got if he was restricted to this framework:

Keeling would have had an interesting seasonal pattern of change that could be discussed and lead to the recommendation of having more CO2 monitoring stations around the world. And he might have thought that CO2 levels were increasing slightly but this trend would not be statistically significant, especially if he has been cut off after 4 years of work. In fact the US government closed the Mauna Loa observatory in 1964 to save money, but fortunately Keeling’s program was rescued after a few months of closure (Harris 2010).

Charles Keeling could in fact be a “patron saint” for aspiring ecology graduate students. In 1957 as a postdoc he worked on developing the best way to measure CO2 in the air by the use of an infrared gas analyzer, and in 1958 he had one of these instruments installed at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii (3394 m, 11,135 ft) to measure pristine air. By that time he had 3 published papers (Marx et al. 2017). By 1970 at age 42 his publication list had increased to a total of 22 papers and an accumulated total of about 50 citations to his research papers. It was not until 1995 that his citation rate began to exceed 100 citations per year, and after 1995 at age 67 his citation rate increased very much. So, if we can do a thought experiment, in the modern era he could never even apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, much less a permanent job. Marx et al. (2017) have an interesting discussion of why Keeling was undercited and unappreciated for so long on what is now considered one of the world’s most critical environmental issues.

What is the message for mere mortals? For postgraduate students, do not judge the importance of your research by its citation rate. Worry about your measurement methods. Do not conclude too much from short-term studies. For professors, let your bright students loose with guidance but without being a dictator. For granting committees and appointment committees, do not be fooled into thinking that citation rates are a sure metric of excellence. For theoretical ecologists, be concerned about the precision and accuracy of the data you build models about. And for everyone, be aware that good science was carried out before the year 2000.

And CO2 levels yesterday were 407 ppm while Nero is still fiddling.

Harris, D.C. (2010) Charles David Keeling and the story of atmospheric CO2 measurements. Analytical Chemistry, 82, 7865-7870. doi: 10.1021/ac1001492

Marx, W., Haunschild, R., French, B. & Bornmann, L. (2017) Slow reception and under-citedness in climate change research: A case study of Charles David Keeling, discoverer of the risk of global warming. Scientometrics, 112, 1079-1092. doi: 10.1007/s11192-017-2405-z

Ecological Alternative Facts

It has become necessary to revise my recent ecological thinking about the principles of ecology along the lines now required in the New World Order. I list here the thirteen cardinal principles of the new ecology 2017:

  1. Population growth is unlimited and is no longer subject to regulation.
  2. Communities undergo succession to the final equilibrium state of the 1%.
  3. Communities and ecosystems are resilient to any and all disturbances and operate best when challenged most strongly, for example with oil spills.
  4. Resources are never limiting under any conditions for the 1% and heavy exploitation helps them to trickle down readily to assist the other 99%.
  5. Overexploiting populations is good for the global ecosystem because it gets rid of the species that are wimps.
  6. Mixing of faunas and floras have been shown over the last 300 years to contribute to the increasing ecological health of Earth.
  7. Recycling is unnecessary in view of recent advances in mining technology.
  8. Carbon dioxide is a valuable resource for plants and we must increase its contribution to atmospheric chemistry.
  9. Climate change is common and advantageous since it occurs from night to day, and has always been with us for many millions of years.
  10. Evolution maximizes wisdom and foresight, especially in mammals.
  11. Conservation of less fit species is an affront to alternative natural laws that were recognized during the 18th century and are now mathematically defined in the new synthetic theory of economic and ecological fitness.
  12. Scientific experiments are no longer necessary because we have computers and technological superiority.
  13. Truth in science is no longer necessary and must be balanced against equally valid post-truth beliefs.

The old ecology, now superseded, was illustrated in Krebs (2016), and is already out of date. Recommendations for other alternative ecological facts will be welcome. Please use the comments.

Krebs, C.J. (2016) Why Ecology Matters. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 208 pp.

Fishery Models and Ecological Understanding

Anyone interested in population dynamics, fisheries management, or ecological understanding in general will be interested to read the exchanges in Science, 23 April 2016 on the problem of understanding stock changes in the northern cod (Gadus morhua) fishery in the Gulf of Maine. I think this exchange is important to read because it illustrates two general problems with ecological science – how to understand ecological changes with incomplete data, and how to extrapolate what is happening into taking some management action.

What we have here are sets of experts promoting a management view and others contradicting the suggested view. There is no question but that ecologists have made much progress in understanding both marine and freshwater fisheries. Probably the total number of person-years of research on marine fishes like the northern cod would dwarf that on all other ecological studies combined. Yet we are still arguing about fundamental processes in major marine fisheries. You will remember that the northern cod in particular was one of the largest fisheries in the world when it began to be exploited in the 16th century, and by the 1990s it was driven to about 1% of its prior abundance, almost to the status of a threatened species.

Pershing et al. (2015) suggested, based on data on a rise in sea surface temperature in the Gulf of Maine, that cod mortality had increased with temperature and this was causing the fishery management model to overestimate the allowable catch. Palmer et al. (2016) and Swain et al. (2016) disputed their conclusions, and Pershing et al. (2016) responded. The details are in these papers and I do not pretend to know whose views are closest to be correct.

But I’m interested in two facts. First, Science clearly thought this controversy was important and worth publishing, even in the face of a 99% rejection rate for all submissions to that journal. Second, it illustrates that ecology faces a lot of questions when it makes conclusions that natural resource managers should act upon. Perhaps it is akin to medicine in being controversial, even though it is all supposed to be evidence based. It is hard to imagine physical scientists or engineers arguing so publically over the design of a bridge or a hydroelectric dam. Why is it that ecologists so often spend time arguing with one another over this or that theory or research finding? If we admit that our conclusions about the world’s ecosystems are so meager and uncertain, does it mean we have a very long way to go before we can claim to be a hard science? We would hope not but what is the evidence?

One problem so well illustrated here in these papers is the difficulty of measuring the parameters of change in marine fish populations and then tying these estimates to models that are predictive of changes required for management actions. The combination of less than precise data and models that are overly precise in their assumptions could be a deadly combination in the ecological management of natural resources.

Palmer, M.C., Deroba, J.J., Legault, C.M., and Brooks, E.N. 2016. Comment on “Slow adaptation in the face of rapid warming leads to collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery”. Science 352(6284): 423-423. doi:10.1126/science.aad9674.

Pershing, A.J., Alexander, M.A., Hernandez, C.M., Kerr, L.A., Le Bris, A., Mills, K.E., Nye, J.A., Record, N.R., Scannell, H.A., Scott, J.D., Sherwood, G.D., and Thomas, A.C. 2016. Response to Comments on “Slow adaptation in the face of rapid warming leads to collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery”. Science 352(6284): 423-423. doi:10.1126/science.aae0463.

Pershing, A.J., Alexander, M.A., Hernandez, C.M., Kerr, L.A., Le Bris, A., Mills, K.E., Nye, J.A., Record, N.R., Scannell, H.A., Scott, J.D., Sherwood, G.D., and Thomas, A.C. 2015. Slow adaptation in the face of rapid warming leads to collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery. Science 350(6262): 809-812. doi:10.1126/science.aac9819.

Swain, D.P., Benoît, H.P., Cox, S.P., and Cadigan, N.G. 2016. Comment on “Slow adaptation in the face of rapid warming leads to collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery”. Science 352(6284): 423-423. doi:10.1126/science.aad9346.

On Critical Questions in Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology

Biodiversity can be a vague concept with so many measurement variants to make one wonder what it is exactly, and how to incorporate ideas about biodiversity into scientific hypotheses. Even if we take the simplest concept of species richness as the operational measure, many questions arise about the importance of the rare species that make up most of the biodiversity but so little of the biomass. How can we proceed to a better understanding of this nebulous ecological concept that we continually put before the public as needing their attention?

Biodiversity conservation relies on community and ecosystem ecology for guidance on how to advance scientific understanding. A recent paper by Turkington and Harrower (2016) articulates this very clearly by laying out 7 general questions for analyzing community structure for conservation of biodiversity. As such these questions are a general model for community and ecosystem ecology approaches that are needed in this century. Thus it would pay to look at these 7 questions more closely and to read this new paper. Here is the list of 7 questions from the paper:

  1. How are natural communities structured?
  2. How does biodiversity determine the function of ecosystems?
  3. How does the loss of biodiversity alter the stability of ecosystems?
  4. How does the loss of biodiversity alter the integrity of ecosystems?
  5. Diversity and species composition
  6. How does the loss of species determine the ability of ecosystems to respond to disturbances?
  7. How does food web complexity and productivity influence the relative strength of trophic interactions and how do changes in trophic structure influence ecosystem function?

Turkington and Harrower (2016) note that each of these 7 questions can be asked in at least 5 different contexts in the biodiversity hotspots of China:

  1. How do the observed responses change across the 28 vegetation types in China?
  2. How do the observed responses change from the low productivity grasslands of the Qinghai Plateau to higher productivity grasslands in other parts of China?
  3. How do the observed responses change along a gradient in the intensity of human use or degradation?
  4. How long should an experiment be conducted given that the immediate results are seldom indicative of longer-term outcomes?
  5. How does the scale of the experiment influence treatment responses?

There are major problems in all of this as Turkington and Harrower (2016) and Bruelheide et al. (2014) have discussed. The first problem is to determine what the community is or what the bounds of an ecosystem are. This is a trivial issue according to community and ecosystem ecologists, and all one does is draw a circle around the particular area of interest for your study. But two points remain. Populations, communities, and ecosystems are open systems with no clear boundaries. In population ecology we can master this problem by analyses of movements and dispersal of individuals. On a short time scale plants in communities are fixed in position while their associated animals move on species-specific scales. Communities and ecosystems are not a unit but vary continuously in space and time, making their analysis difficult. The species present on 50 m2 are not the same as those on another plot 100 m or 1000 m away even if the vegetation types are labeled the same. So we replicate plots within what we define to be our community. If you are studying plant dynamics, you can experimentally place all plant species selected in defined plots in a pre-arranged configuration for your planting experiments, but you cannot do this with animals except in microcosms. All experiments are place specific, and if you consider climate change on a 100 year time scale, they are also time specific. We can hope that generality is strong and our conclusions will apply in 100 years but we do not know this now.

But we can do manipulative experiments, as these authors strongly recommend, and that brings a whole new set of problems, outlined for example in Bruelheide et al. (2014, Table 1, page 78) for a forestry experiment in southern China. Decisions about how many tree species to manipulate in what size of plots and what planting density to use are all potentially critical to the conclusions we reach. But it is the time frame of hypothesis testing that is the great unknown. All these studies must be long-term but whether this is 10 years or 50 years can only be found out in retrospect. Is it better to have, for example, forestry experiments around the world carried out with identical protocols, or to adopt a laissez faire approach with different designs since we have no idea yet of what design is best for answering these broad questions.

I suspect that this outline of the broad questions given in Turkington and Harrower (2016) is at least a 100 year agenda, and we need to be concerned how we can carry this forward in a world where funding of research questions has a 3 or 5 year time frame. The only possible way forward, until we win the Lottery, is for all researchers to carry out short term experiments on very specific hypotheses within this framework. So every graduate student thesis in experimental community and ecosystem ecology is important to achieving the goals outlined in these papers. Even if this 100 year time frame is optimistic and achievable, we can progress on a shorter time scale by a series of detailed experiments on small parts of the community or ecosystem at hand. I note that some of these broad questions listed above have been around for more than 50 years without being answered. If we redefine our objectives more precisely and do the kinds of experiments that these authors suggest we can move forward, not with the solution of grand ideas as much as with detailed experimental data on very precise questions about our chosen community. In this way we keep the long-range goal posts in view but concentrate on short-term manipulative experiments that are place and time specific.

This will not be easy. Birds are probably the best studied group of animals on Earth, and we now have many species that are changing in abundance dramatically over large spatial scales (e.g. http://www.stateofcanadasbirds.org/ ). I am sobered by asking avian ecologists why a particular species is declining or dramatically increasing. I never get a good answer, typically only a generally plausible idea, a hand waving explanation based on correlations that are not measured or well understood. Species recovery plans are often based on hunches rather than good data, with few of the key experiments of the type requested by Turkington and Harrower (2016). At the moment the world is changing rather faster than our understanding of these ecological interactions that tie species together in communities and ecosystems. We are walking when we need to be running, and even the Red Queen is not keeping up.

Bruelheide, H. et al. 2014. Designing forest biodiversity experiments: general considerations illustrated by a new large experiment in subtropical China. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 5, 74-89. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12126

Turkington, R. & Harrower, W.L. 2016. An experimental approach to addressing ecological questions related to the conservation of plant biodiversity in China. Plant Diversity, 38, 1-10. Available at: http://journal.kib.ac.cn/EN/volumn/current.shtml

The Volkswagen Syndrome and Ecological Science

We have all been hearing the reports that Volkswagen fixed diesel cars by some engineering trick to show low levels of pollution, while the actual pollution produced on the road is 10-100 times higher than the laboratory predicted pollution levels. I wonder if this is an analogous situation to what we have in ecology when we compare laboratory studies and conclusions to real-world situations.

The push in ecology has always been to simplify the system first by creating models full of assumptions, and then by laboratory experiments that are greatly oversimplified compared with the real world. There are very good reasons to try to do this, since the real world is rather complicated, but I wonder if we should call a partial moratorium on such research by conducting a review of how far we have been led astray by both simple models and simple laboratory population, community and ecosystem studies in microcosms and mesocosms. I can almost hear the screams coming up that of course this is not possible since graduate students must complete a degree in 2 or 3 years, and postdocs must do something in 2 years. If this is our main justification for models and microcosms, that is fair enough but we ought to be explicit about stating that and then evaluate how much we have been misled by such oversimplification.

Let me try to be clear about this problem. It is an empirical question of whether or not studies in laboratory or field microcosms can give us reliable generalizations for much more extensive communities and ecosystems that are not in some sense space limited or time limited. I have a personal view on this question, heavily influenced by studies of small mammal populations in microcosms. But my experience may be atypical of the rest of natural systems, and this is an empirical question, not one on which we can simply state our opinions.

If the world is much more complex than our current understanding of it, we must conclude that an extensive list of climate change papers should be moved to the fiction section of our libraries. If we assume equilibrial dynamics in our communities and ecosystems, we fly in violation of almost all long term studies of populations, communities, and ecosystems. The problem lies in the space and time vision of our science. Our studies are too short to show even a good representation of dynamics over a 100 year time scale, and the problems of landscape ecology highlight that what we see in patch A may be greatly influenced by whether patches B and C are close by or not. We see this darkly in a few small studies but are compelled to believe that such landscape effects are unusual or atypical. This may in fact be the case, but we need much more work to see if it is rare or common. And the broader issue is what use do we as ecologists have for ecological predictions that cannot be tested without data for the next 100 years?

Are all our grand generalizations of ecology falling by the wayside without us noticing it? Prins and Gordon (2014) in their overview seem to feel that the real world is poorly reflected in many of our beloved theories. I think this is a reflection of the Volkswagen Syndrome, of the failure to appreciate that the laboratory in its simplicity is so far removed from real world community and ecosystem dynamics that we ought to start over to build an ecological edifice of generalizations or rules with a strong appreciation of the limited validity of most generalizations until much more research has been done. The complications of the real world can be ignored in the search for simplicity, but one has to do this with the realization that predictions that flow from faulty generalizations can harm our science. We ecologists have very much research yet to do to establish secure generalizations that lead to reliable predictions.

Prins, H.H.T. & Gordon, I.J. (2014) Invasion Biology and Ecological Theory: Insights from a Continent in Transformation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 540 pp. ISBN 9781107035812.

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

On Tipping Points and Regime Shifts in Ecosystems

A new important paper raises red flags about our preoccupation with tipping points, alternative stable states and regime shifts (I’ll call them collectively sharp transitions) in ecosystems (Capon et al. 2015). I do not usually call attention to papers but this paper and a previous review (Mac Nally et al. 2014) seem to me to be critical for how we think about ecosystem changes in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Consider an oversimplified example of how a sharp transition might work. Suppose we dumped fertilizer into a temperate clear-water lake. The clear water soon turns into pea soup with a new batch of algal species, a clear shift in the ecosystem, and this change is not good for many of the invertebrates or fish that were living there. Now suppose we stop dumping fertilizer into the lake. In time, and this could be a few years, the lake can either go back to its original state of clear water or it could remain as a pea soup lake for a very long time even though the pressure of added fertilizer was stopped. This second outcome would be a sharp transition, “you cannot go back from here” and the question for ecologists is how often does this happen? Clearly the answer is of great interest to natural resource managers and restoration ecologists.

The history of this idea for me was from the 1970s at UBC when Buzz Holling and Carl Walters were modelling the spruce budworm outbreak problem in eastern Canadian coniferous forests. They produced a model with a manifold surface that tipped the budworm from a regime of high abundance to one of low abundance (Holling 1973). We were all suitably amazed and began to wonder if this kind of thinking might be helpful in understanding snowshoe hare population cycles and lemming cycles. The evidence was very thin for the spruce budworm, but the model was fascinating. Then by the 1980s the bandwagon started to roll, and alternative stable states and regime change seemed to be everywhere. Many ideas about ecosystem change got entangled with sharp transition, and the following two reviews help to unravel them.

Of the 135 papers reviewed by Capon et al. (2015) very few showed good evidence of alternative stable states in freshwater ecosystems. They highlighted the use and potential misuse of ecological theory in trying to predict future ecosystem trajectories by managers, and emphasized the need of a detailed analysis of the mechanisms causing ecosystem change. In a similar paper for estuaries and near inshore marine ecosystems, Mac Nally et al. (2014) showed that of 376 papers that suggested sharp transitions, only 8 seemed to have sufficient data to satisfy the criteria needed to conclude that a transition had occurred and was linkable to an identifiable pressure. Most of the changes described in these studies are examples of gradual ecosystem changes rather than a dramatic shift; indeed, the timescale against which changes are assessed is critical. As always the devil is in the details.

All of this is to recognize that strong ecosystem changes do occur in response to human actions but they are not often sharp transitions that are closely linked to human actions, as far as we can tell now. And the general message is clearly to increase rigor in our ecological publications, and to carry out the long-term studies that provide a background of natural variation in ecosystems so that we have a ruler to measure human induced changes. Reviews such as these two papers go a long way to helping ecologists lift our game.

Perhaps it is best to end with part of the abstract in Capon et al. (2015):

“We found limited understanding of the subtleties of the relevant theoretical concepts and encountered few mechanistic studies that investigated or identified cause-and-effect relationships between ecological responses and nominal pressures. Our results mirror those of reviews for estuarine, nearshore and marine aquatic ecosystems, demonstrating that although the concepts of regime shifts and alternative stable states have become prominent in the scientific and management literature, their empirical underpinning is weak outside of a specific environmental setting. The application of these concepts in future research and management applications should include evidence on the mechanistic links between pressures and consequent ecological change. Explicit consideration should also be given to whether observed temporal dynamics represent variation along a continuum rather than categorically different states.”


Capon, S.J., Lynch, A.J.J., Bond, N., Chessman, B.C., Davis, J., Davidson, N., Finlayson, M., Gell, P.A., Hohnberg, D., Humphrey, C., Kingsford, R.T., Nielsen, D., Thomson, J.R., Ward, K., and Mac Nally, R. 2015. Regime shifts, thresholds and multiple stable states in freshwater ecosystems; a critical appraisal of the evidence. Science of The Total Environment 517(0): in press. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.02.045.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1-23. doi:10.1146/annurev.es.04.110173.000245.

Mac Nally, R., Albano, C., and Fleishman, E. 2014. A scrutiny of the evidence for pressure-induced state shifts in estuarine and nearshore ecosystems. Austral Ecology 39: 898-906. doi:10.1111/aec.12162.

Ecosystem Science to the Rescue

What can ecologists do to become useful in the mess that is currently the 21st Century? In Australia we have a set of guidelines now available as “Foundations for the Future: A Long Term Plan for Australian Ecosystem Science” (http://www.ecosystemscienceplan.org.au ) It is a useful overall plan in many respects and the only question I wish to discuss here is how we ecologists come to such plans and whether or not they are realistic.

We should begin by treating this plan as an excellent example of political ecology – a well presented, glossy brochure, with punch lines carved out and highlighted so that newspaper reporters and sympathetic politicians can present sound bites on air or in Parliament. One example: “Healthy ecosystems are the cornerstone of our social and economic wellbeing”. No arguments there.

Six key directions are indicated:

  1. Delivering maximum impact for Australia: Enhancing relationships between scientists and end-users
  2. Supporting long-term research
  3. Enabling ecosystem surveillance
  4. Making the most of data resources
  5. Inspiring a generation: Empowering the public with knowledge and opportunities
  6. Facilitating coordination, collaboration and leadership

Most ecologists would agree with all 6 key directions, but perhaps only 2 and 3 are scientific goals that are key to research planning. Everyone supports 2, but how do we achieve this without adequate funding? Similarly 3 is an admirable direction but how is it to be accomplished? Could we argue that most ecologists have been trying to achieve these 6 goals for 75 years, and particularly goals 2 and 3 for at least 35 years?

As a snapshot of the importance of ecosystem science, the example of the Great Barrier Reef is presented, and in particular understanding reef condition and its changes over time.

“Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, an Australian icon that makes an economic contribution of over $5 billion annually. Ongoing monitoring of the reef and its condition by ecosystem scientists plays a vital role in understanding pressures and informing the development of management strategies. Annual surveys to measure coral cover across the Great Barrier Reef since 1985 have built the world’s most extensive time series data on reef condition across 214 reefs. Researchers have used this long-term data to assess patterns of change and to determine the causes of change.”

The paper they cite (De’ath et al. 2012) shows a coral cover decline on the Great Barrier Reef of 50% over 27 years, with three main causes: cyclones (48% of total), crown-of-thorns starfish (43%) and coral bleaching (10%). From a management perspective, controlling the starfish would help recovery but only on the assumption that the climate is held stable lest cyclones and bleaching increase in future. It is not clear at all to me how ecosystem science can assist reef recovery, and we have in this case another good example of excellent ecological understanding with near-zero ability to rectify the main causes of reef degradation – climate change and water pollution.

The long-term plan presented in this report suggests many useful activities by which ecosystem studies could be more integrated. Exactly which ecosystem studies should be considered high priority are left for future considerations, as is the critical question of who will do these studies. Given that many of the originators of this ecosystem plan are from universities, one worries whether universities have the resources or the time frame or the mandate to accomplish all these goals which are essentially government services. With many governments backing out of serious ecosystem research because of budget cuts, the immediate future does not look good. Nearly 10 years ago Sutherland et al. (2006) gathered together a list of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance for the United Kingdom. We should now go back to see if these became a blueprint for success or not.

De’ath, G., Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., and Puotinen, M. (2012). The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(44): 17995-17999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2006). The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology 43(4): 617-627. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01188.x