Tag Archives: monitoring

Ecological Science: Monitoring vs. Stamp Collecting

Ecology as a science is deeply divided by two views of the natural world. First is the view that we need to monitor changes in the distribution and abundance of the biota and try to explain why these changes are occurring through experiments. The second view is that we need to understand ecosystems as complex systems, and this can be done only by models with a tenuous link to data. It is worth discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these views of our science.

The first view could be described as the here-and-now approach, studies of how the populations, communities, and ecosystems are changing in all the biomes on Earth. It is clearly impossible to do this properly because of a lack of funding and person-power. Because of this impossibility we change our focus to short-term studies of populations, species, or communities and try to grasp what is happening in the time scale of our lifetime. This had led to a literature of confusing short-term studies of problems that are long-term. Experiments must be short term because of funding. Any long-term studies such of those highlighted in textbooks are woefully inadequate to support the conclusions reached. Why is this? It is the baffling complexity of even the simplest ecological community. The number of species involved is too large to study all of them, so we concentrate on the more abundant species, assuming all the rare species are of little consequence. This has led to a further division within the monitoring community between conservation ecologists who worry about the extinction of larger, dominant species and those that worry about the loss of rare species.

The first approach is further compromised by climate change and human exploitation of the Earth. You could invest in the study of a grassland ecosystem for 15 years only to find it turned into a subdivision of houses in year 16. We try to draw conclusions in this hypothetical case by the data of the 15 years of study. But if physiological ecologists and climate change models are even approximately correct, the structure of similar grassland ecosystems will change due to rainfall and temperature shifts associated with greenhouse gases. Our only recourse is to hope that evolution of physiological tolerances will change fast enough to rescue our species of interest. But there is no way to know this without further empirical studies that monitor climate and the details of physiological ecology. And we talk now about understanding only single species and are back to the complexity problem of species interactions in communities.

The second approach is to leap over all this complexity as stamp-collecting and concentrate on the larger issues. Are our ecological communities resilient to climate change and species invasions? Part of this approach comes from paleoecology and questions of what has happened during the last 10,000 or one million years. But the details that emerge from paleoecology are very large scale, very interesting but perhaps not a good guide to our future under climate change. If a forward-looking forestry company wishes to make sure it has 100-year-old trees to harvest in 100 years’ time, what species should they plant now in central Canada? Or if a desert community in Chile is to be protected in a national park, what should the management plan involve? These kinds of questions are much harder to answer than simpler ones like how many dingoes will we have in central Australia next year.

Long-term experiments could bridge the gap between these two approaches to ecological understanding, but this would mean proper funding and person-power support for numerous experiments that would have a lifetime of 25 to 100 years or more. This will never happen until we recognize that the Earth is more important than our GDP, and that economics is the king of the sciences.

Where does all this lead ecological scientists? Both approaches have been important to pursue in what has been the first 100 years of ecological studies and they will continue to be important as our ecological understanding improves. We need good experimental science on a small scale and good broad thinking on long time scales with extensive studies of everything from coral reefs to the Alaskan tundra. We need to make use of the insights of behavioural ecology and physiological ecology in reaching our tentative conclusions. And if anyone tells you what will happen in your lifetime in all our forests and all the biodiversity on Earth, you should be very careful to ask for strong evidence before you commit to a future scenario.

Beller, E.E., McClenachan, L., Zavaleta, E.S., and Larsen, L.G. (2020). Past forward: Recommendations from historical ecology for ecosystem management. Global Ecology and Conservation 21, e00836. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00836.

Bro-Jørgensen, J., Franks, D.W., and Meise, K. (2019). Linking behaviour to dynamics of populations and communities: application of novel approaches in behavioural ecology to conservation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B.  Biological Sciences 374: 20190008.  doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0008.

Lidicker, W.Z. (2020). A Scientist’s Warning to humanity on human population growth. Global Ecology and Conservation 24, e01232. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01232.

McGowan, D. W., Goldstein, E. D., and Zador, S. (2020). Spatial and temporal dynamics of Pacific capelin Mallotus catervarius in the Gulf of Alaska: implications for ecosystem-based fisheries management. Marine Ecology. Progress Series 637, 117-140. doi: 10.3354/meps13211.

Tsujimoto, M., Kajikawa, Y., and Matsumoto, Y. (2018). A review of the ecosystem concept — Towards coherent ecosystem design. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 136, 49-58. doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2017.06.032.

Wolfe, Kennedy, Kenyon, Tania M., and Mumby, Peter J. (2021). The biology and ecology of coral rubble and implications for the future of coral reefs. Coral Reefs 40, 1769-1806. doi: 10.1007/s00338-021-02185-9.

Yu, Zicheng, Loisel, J., Brosseau, D.P., Beilman, D.W., and Hunt, S.J. (2010). Global peatland dynamics since the Last Glacial Maximum. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L13402. doi: 10.1029/2010GL043584.

On Ecological Predictions

The gold standard of ecological studies is the understanding of a particular ecological issue or system and the ability to predict the operation of that system in the future. A simple example is the masting of trees (Pearse et al. 2016). Mast seeding is synchronous and highly variable seed production among years by a population of perennial plants. One ecological question is what environmental drivers cause these masting years and what factors can be used to predict mast years. Weather cues and plant resource states presumably interact to determine mast years. The question I wish to raise here, given this widely observed natural history event, is how good our predictive models can be on a spatial and temporal scale.

On a spatial scale masting events can be widespread or localized, and this provides some cues to the important weather variables that might be important. Assuming we can derive weather models for prediction, we face two often unknown constraints – space and time. If we can derive a weather model for trees in New Zealand, will it also apply to trees in Australia or California? Or on a more constrained geographical view, if it applied on the South Island of New Zealand will it also apply on the North Island? At the other extreme, must we derive models for every population of particular plants in different areas, so that predictability is spatially limited? We hope not and work on the assumption of more spatial generality than what we can measure on our particular small study areas.

The temporal stability of our explanations is now particularly worrisome because of climate change. If we have a good model of masting for a particular tree species in 2017, will it still be working in 2030, 2050 or 2100? A physicist would never ask such a question since a “scientific law” is independent of time. But biology in general and ecology in particular is not time independent both because of evolution and now in particular because of changing climate. But we have not faced up to whether or not we must check our “ecological laws” over and over again as the environment changes, and if we have to do this what must the time scale of rechecking be? Perhaps this question can be answered by determining the speed of potential evolutionary change in species groups. If virus diseases can evolve quickly in terms of months or years, we must be eternally vigilant to consider if the flu virus of 2017 is going to be the same as that of 2016. We should not stop virus research and say that we have sorted out some universal model that will become an equivalent of the laws of physics.

The consequences of these simple observations are not simple. One consequence is the implication that monitoring is an essential ecological activity. But in most ecological funding agencies monitoring is thought to be unscientific, not leading to progress, and more stamp collecting. So we have to establish that, like the Weather Bureau every country supports, we must have an equivalent ecological monitoring bureau. We do have these bureaus for some ecological systems that make money, like marine fisheries, but most other ecosystems are left in limbo with little or no funding on the generalized assumption that “mother or father nature will take care of itself” or expressed more elegantly by a cabinet minister who must be nameless, “there is no need for more forestry research, as we know everything we need to know already”. The urge by politicians to cut research funding lives too much in environmental research.

But ecologists are not just ‘stamp collectors’ as some might think. We need to develop generality but at a time scale and a spatial scale that is reliable and useful for the resolution of the problem that gave rise to the research. Typically for ecological issues this time scale would be 10-25 years, and a rule of thumb might be for 10 generations of the organisms being studied. For many of our questions an annual scale might be most useful, but for long-lived plants and animals we must be thinking of decades or even centuries. Some practical examples from Pacifici et al. (2013): If you study field voles (Microtus spp.) typically you can complete your studies of 10 generations in 3.5 years (on average). If you study red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the same 10 generations will cost you 39 years, and if red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) 58 years. If wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in the Serengeti, 10 generations will take you 80 years, and if you prefer red kangaroos (Macropus rufus) it will take about 90 years. All these estimates are very approximate but they give you an idea of what the time scale of a long-term study might be. Except for the rodent example, all these study durations are nearly impossible to achieve, and the question for ecologists is this: Should we be concerned about these time scales, or should we scale everything to the human research time scale?

The spatial scale has expanded greatly for ecologists with the advent of radio transmitters and the possibility of satellite tracking. These technological advances allow many conservation questions regarding bird migration to be investigated (e.g. Oppel et al. 2015). But no matter what the spatial scale of interest in a research or management program, variation among individuals and sites must be analyzed by means of the replication of measurements or manipulations at several sites. The spatial scale is dictated by the question under investigation, and the issue of fragmentation has focused attention on the importance of spatial movements both for ecological and evolutionary questions (Betts et al. 2014).

And the major question remains: can we construct an adequate theory of ecology from a series of short-term, small area or small container studies?

Betts, M.G., Fahrig, L., Hadley, A.S., Halstead, K.E., Bowman, J., Robinson, W.D., Wiens, J.A. & Lindenmayer, D.B. (2014) A species-centered approach for uncovering generalities in organism responses to habitat loss and fragmentation. Ecography, 37, 517-527. doi: 10.1111/ecog.00740

Oppel, S., Dobrev, V., Arkumarev, V., Saravia, V., Bounas, A., Kret, E., Velevski, M., Stoychev, S. & Nikolov, S.C. (2015) High juvenile mortality during migration in a declining population of a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis, 157, 545-557. doi: 10.1111/ibi.12258

Pacifici, M., Santini, L., Di Marco, M., Baisero, D., Francucci, L., Grottolo Marasini, G., Visconti, P. & Rondinini, C. (2013) Database on generation length of mammals. Nature Conservation, 5, 87-94. doi: 10.3897/natureconservation.5.5734

Pearse, I.S., Koenig, W.D. & Kelly, D. (2016) Mechanisms of mast seeding: resources, weather, cues, and selection. New Phytologist, 212 (3), 546-562. doi: 10.1111/nph.14114