Tag Archives: natural history

The Two Ecologies

Trying to keep up with the ecological literature is a daunting task, and my aging efforts shout to me that there are now two ecologies that it might be worth partially separating. First, many published “ecological” papers are natural history. This is certainly an important component of the environmental literature but for the most part good observations alone are not science in the formal sense of science addressing problems and trying to solve them with the experimental approach. The information provided in the natural history literature regarding both plants and animals include their identification, where they live, what nutrients or food resources they utilize and in some cases information on their conservation status. A good foundation of natural history is needed to do good ecological research to be sure so my statements must not be misinterpreted to suggest that I do not appreciate natural history. Good natural history leads into the two parts of ecology that I would like to discuss. I call these social ecology and scientific ecology.

Social ecology flows most easily out of natural history and deals with the interaction between humans and the biota. Thus, for example, many people love birds which are ever present in both cities and countryside, are often highly colourful and vocal in our environment. Similarly, many tourists from North America visit Australia, Africa and Central America to see birds that are unique to those regions. Similar adventures are available to see elephants, bison, bears, and whales in their natural habitats. Social ecology flows into conservation biology in cases where preferred species are threatened by human changes to the landscape. The key here is that there is a mix in social ecology between human entertainment and a concern for species losses that are driven by human actions. Social ecology is mostly about people and their views of what parts of the environment are important to them. People love elephants but are little concerned about earthworms unless they bother them.

Scientific ecology should operate with a broader perspective of testing hypotheses to understand how populations and communities of animals and plants interact to produce the world as we see it. It asks about how species interactions change over time and whether they lead to environmental stability or instability. Scientific ecology has a time dimension that is much longer than that of social ecology. The focus of scientific ecology is hypothesis testing to answer problems or questions about how the biological world works. This perspective interacts strongly with climate change and human disturbances as well as natural disturbances like flooding or forest fires. While social ecology asks what is happening, scientific ecology asks why this is happening in our ecosystems. Scientific ecology allows us to determine the causal factors behind problems of change and the management approaches that might be required. While social ecology observes that migratory birds appear to be declining in abundance, scientific ecology asks exactly which bird species are at risk and what factors like food supplies, predation, or disease are the cause of the decline. And most importantly can humans change the environment to prevent species losses?

Conservation ecology has become the link between social and scientific ecology and shares elements of both approaches. Too much of social conservation biology consists of moaning and groaning about changes with little data and unverifiable speculations. As such it provides little help to solve conservation problems. When there is clear public support for issues like old growth logging, politicians often do not act ethically to follow public support because of economics or inertia. Scientific ecology has been strongly influenced by Karl Popper’s (1963) book, with much discussion today among philosophers about Popper’s approach to hypotheses within the context of our social values and objectives (Dias 2019). Lundblad and Conway (2021) provide a classic example of hypothesis testing for clutch size in birds which illustrates well the path of scientific ecology over many years from initial conjectures to more refined understanding of the original scientific question.

In a sense this ecological dichotomy is found in many of the sciences. Medicine is a good example. We can observe and describe symptoms of people dying of lung cancer, but medical scientists really wish to know what environmental causes like air pollution or cigarette smoking are producing this mortality, and whether genetic backgrounds are involved. Science is far from perfect and there are many false leads in proposals of drugs in medicine that turn out to be counterproductive to solving a particular problem. Kim and Kendeou (2021) discuss the critical question of knowledge transfer as science progresses in our society today through knowledge transfer from generation to generation.

My concern is that social ecology is replacing scientific ecology in the ecological literature so that as we are so enamoured with the beauty of nature, we forget the need to find out quantitatively what is happening and how it might be mitigated. As with medicine, talking about problems does not solve them without serious empirical scientific study.

Dias, E.A. (2019) Science as a game in Popper. Griot : Revista de Filosofia,, 19, 327-337.doi: 10.31977/grirfi.v19i3.1239. (in Portuguese; use Google Translate)

Kim, J. & Kendeou, P. (2021) Knowledge transfer in the context of refutation texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 67, 102002.doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2021.102002.

Lundblad, C.G. & Conway, C.J. (2021) Ashmole’s hypothesis and the latitudinal gradient in clutch size. Biological Reviews, 96, 1349-1366.doi: 10.1111/brv.12705.

Popper, K.R. (1963) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. 412 pp.

On Alpha-Ecology

All science advances on the back of previous scientists. No advances can be made without recognizing problems, and problems cannot bet recognized without having completed a great deal of descriptive natural history. Natural history has been described by some physicists as ‘stamp-collecting’ and so has been condemned forever in the totem pole of science as the worst thing you could possibly do. Perhaps we would improve our image if we called natural history alpha-ecology.

Let us start with the biggest problem in biology, the fact that we do not know how many species inhabit the earth (Mora et al. 2011). A minor problem most people seem to think and little effort has gone into encouraging students to make a career of traditional taxonomy. Instead we can sequence the genome of any organism without even being able to put a Latin name on it. Something is rather backwards here, and a great deal of alpha-biology is waiting to be done on this inventory problem. Much of taxonomic description considers low-level hypotheses about evolutionary relationships and these are important to document as a part of understanding the Earth’s biodiversity.

In ecology we have an equivalent problem of describing the species that live in a community or ecosystem, and then constructing the food webs of the community. This is a daunting task and if you wish to understand community dynamics you will have to do a lot of descriptive work, alpha ecology, before you can get to the point of testing hypotheses about community dynamics (Thompson et al. 2012). Again it is largely a bit of detective work to see who eats whom in a food web, but without all this work we cannot progress. The second part of community dynamics is being able to estimate accurately the numbers of organisms in the different species groups. Once you dig into existing food web data, you begin to realize that much of what we think is a good estimate of abundance is in fact a weak estimate of unknown accuracy. We have to be careful in analysing community dynamics to avoid estimations based more on random numbers than on biological reality.

The problem came home to me in a revealing exchange in Nature about whether the existing fisheries data for the world’s oceans is reliable or not (Pauly, Hilborn, and Branch 2013). For years we have been managing the oceanic fisheries of the world on the basis of fishing catch data of the sort reported to FAO, and yet there is considerable disagreement about the reliability of these numbers. We must continue to use them as we have no other source of information for most oceanic fisheries, but there must be some doubt that we are relying too much on unreliable data. On the one hand, some fishery scientists argue with these data that we are overexploiting the ocean fisheries, but other fishery scientists argue that the oceanic fisheries are by and large in good shape. Controversies like this confuse the public and the policy makers and tell us we have a long way to go to improve our alpha-ecology.

I think the bottom line is that if you wish to test any ecological hypothesis you need to have reliable data, and this means a great deal of alpha-ecology is needed, research that will not get you a Nobel Prize but will help us understand how the Earth’s ecosystem operates.

Mora, C., et al. 2013. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biology 9:e1001127.

Pauly, D., R. Hilborn, and T. A. Branch. 2013. Fisheries: Does catch reflect abundance? Nature 494:303-306.

Thompson, R. M., et al. 2012. Food webs: reconciling the structure and function of biodiversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 27:689-697.