Tag Archives: research priorities

On What to Read in the Ecological Literature

Postgraduate students in ecology face a wall of literature that they must come to grips with in their career. Time is limited and unlike the French naturalist Comte de Buffon who produced 36 volumes of Histoire Naturelle from 1749 to 1788, most of us do not have the luxury of several assistants reading the current literature to us during all waking hours (even during meals). So, there are three options available now if you wish to become a scientist. First, you can decide that there was nothing serious written before a specified date like 2008, and then concentrate on the recent literature only. Alternatively, you can decide that all the current wisdom in ecology is summarized in a few books and read them. This option has the danger that your choice of books to read may give you a distorted orientation to ecological science. Thirdly, you may decide that your thesis supervisor is a concentrated source of ecological wisdom and simply do what he or she says. This is certainly the most parsimonious way to proceed but the risk here is that you may find later when looking for a job that your supervisor was considered a fringe player rather than the central cutting edge of future ecological science.

Whatever your decision you will still face a large pile of scientific papers. So, the skill you need to sharpen is how to cull the literature. If you wish to study cone production in Pinus banksiana, you can search for all the literature with this Latin name in the search terms of the Web of Science or a similar source program. Given all that, you can now (I am told) get AI to write your thesis automatically. This is of course nonsense since any specific set of ecological literature will have many contradictory papers, some papers that are outright incorrect because of statistics or experimental design, and others that are speculation rather than data rich. So, you will have to read a great deal to fix on a specific problem within this specified field that you can address with your thesis work. The key question is as always What Next? New ideas, new insights, new speculation are the keys at this point.

Perhaps the most important insight here is that there are many thousands of unanswered questions in science, and ecology may be particularly difficult in having many critical issues that have simply been dropped because they are too difficult. But what was too difficult 10 years ago may be easy to measure now, so advances in understanding are possible. But here you must pick a problem that is solvable, and there are many problems floating around in the ecological literature that are impossible to solve, and others that if solved will be of little use for the critical issues that are now visible. There is no simple guidance here for new scientists. We can see in textbooks and reviews the problems of the past clearly stated and investigated, but the problems of the past that AI or your library can highlight may not be the problems that are most important for the future of our science. Bravery here is desirable but dangerous.

There are other issues that I think worth noting for young ecologists. Read widely. There are many good ecological journals, and do not assume that all you need to read are British ones, or American ones, or Science and Nature. With all due respects, there is much nonsense published in Science and Nature, not to mention lesser renowned journals. Do not assume that only English papers present ecological wisdom. Read sceptically and ask what is the evidence for any conclusion and how good it is. However, a word of caution to postgraduate students is in order here: be careful not to apply these rules to your thesis supervisor’s research. Some things in science are sacred.

Andrew (2020), Fox (2021) and Fox et al (2023) discuss some of the reasons ecological journals do not reach perfection, and their analyses may help relieve your anxiety if your recent paper has been rejected by your favourite journal.

Andrew, N. R. (2020). Design flaws and poor language: Two key reasons why manuscripts get rejected from austral ecology across all countries between 2017 and 2020. Austral Ecology, 45, 505–509.doi: 10.1111/aec.12908.

Fox, C. W. (2021). Which peer reviewers voluntarily reveal their identity to authors? Insights into the consequences of open-identities peer review. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1961), 20211399. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2021.1399.

Fox, C.W., Meyer, J. & Aime, E. (2023) Double‐blind peer review affects reviewer ratings and editor decisions at an ecology journal. Functional Ecology, 37, 1144-1157.doi. 10.1111/1365-2435.14259.

The Time Frame of Ecological Science

Ecological research differs from many branches of science in having a more convoluted time frame. Most of the sciences proceed along paths that are more often than not linear – results A → results B → results C and so on. Of course, these are never straight linear sequences and were described eloquently by Platt (1964) as strong inference:

“Strong inference consists of applying the following steps to every problem in science, formally and explicitly and regularly: 1) Devising alternative hypotheses; 2) Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses; 3) Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result; “Recycling the procedure, making sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain; and so on. It is like climbing a tree.” (page 347 in Platt).

If there is one paper that I would recommend all ecologists read it is this paper which is old but really is timeless and critical in our scientific research. It should be a required discussion topic for every graduate student in ecology.

Some ecological science progresses as Platt (1964) suggests and makes good progress, but much of ecology is lost in a failure to specify alternative hypotheses, in changing questions, in abandoning topics because they are too difficult, and in a shortage of time. It is the time component of ecological research that I wish to discuss in this blog.

The idea of long-term studies has always been present in ecology but was perhaps brought to our focus by the compilation by Gene Likens in 1989 in a book of 14 chapters that are as vital now as they were 34 years ago. Many discussions of long-term studies are now available to examine this issue. Buma et al. (2019) for example discuss plant primary succession at Glacier Bay, Alaska which has 100 years of data, and which illustrates in a very slow ecosystem a test of conventional rules of community development. Cusser et al. (2021) follow this by asking a critical question of how long field experiments need to be. They restrict long-term to be > 10 years of study and used data from the USA LTER sites. This question depends very much on the community or ecosystem of study. Studies in areas with a stable climate produced results more quickly than those in highly seasonal environments, and plant studies needed to be longer term than animal studies to reach stable conclusions. Ten years may not be enough.

Reinke et al. (2019) reviewed 3 long term field studies and suggest that long-term studies can be useful to allow us to predict how ecosystems will change with time. All these studies lead to three unanswered questions that are critical for progress in ecology. The first question is how we decide as a community exactly which ecological system we should be studying long-term. No one knows how to answer this question, and a useful graduate seminar could debate the utility of what are now considered model long-term studies, such as the three highlighted in Reinke et al. (2019) or the Park Grass Experiment (Addy et al. 2022). At the moment these decisions are opportunistic, and we should debate how best to proceed. Clearly, we cannot do everything for every population and community of interest, so how do we choose? We need model systems that can be applied to a wide variety of environments across the globe and that ask questions of global significance. Many groups of ecologists are trying to do this, but a host of decisions about who to fund and support in what institution are vital to avoid long-term studies driven more by convenience than by ecological importance.

A second question involves the implied disagreement whether many important questions in ecology today could be answered by short-term studies, so we reach a position where there is competition between short- and long-term funding. These decisions about where to do what for how long are largely uncontrolled. One would prefer to see an articulated set of hypotheses and predictions to proceed with decision making, whether for short-term studies suitable for graduate students or particularly for long-term studies that exceed the life of individual researchers.

A third question is the most difficult one of the objectives of long-term research. Given climate change as it is moving today, the hope that long-term studies will give us reliable predictions of changes in communities and ecosystems is at risk, the same problem of extrapolating a regression line beyond the range of the data. Depending on the answer to this climate dilemma, we could drop back to the suggestion that because we have only a poor ability to predict ecological change, we should concentrate more on widespread monitoring programs and less on highly localized studies of a few sites that are of unknown generality. Testing models with long-term data is enriching the ecological literature (e.g. Addy et al 2022). But the challenge is whether our current understanding is sufficient to make predictions for future populations or communities. Should ecology adopt the paradigm of global weather stations?

Addy, J.W.G., Ellis, R.H., MacLaren, C., Macdonald, A.J., Semenov, M.A. & Mead, A. (2022) A heteroskedastic model of Park Grass spring hay yields in response to weather suggests continuing yield decline with climate change in future decades. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 19, 20220361. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2022.0361.

Buma, B., Bisbing, S.M., Wiles, G. & Bidlack, A.L. (2019) 100 yr of primary succession highlights stochasticity and competition driving community establishment and stability. Ecology, 100, e02885. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2885.

Cusser, S., Helms IV, J., Bahlai, C.A. & Haddad, N.M. (2021) How long do population level field experiments need to be? Utilising data from the 40-year-old LTER network. Ecology Letters, 24, 1103-1111. doi: 10.1111/ele.13710.

Hughes, B.B., Beas-Luna, R., Barner, A., et al. (2017) Long-term studies contribute disproportionately to ecology and policy. BioScience, 67, 271-281. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw185.

Likens, G.E. (Editor, 1989) Long-term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives. Springer Verlag, New York. 214 pp. ISBN: 0387967435.

Platt, J.R. (1964) Strong inference. Science, 146, 347-353. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347.

Reinke, B.A., Miller, D.A.W. & Janzen, F.J. (2019) What have long-term field studies taught as about population dynamics? Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 50, 261-278. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110218-024717.

The Two Questions: So what? What next?

Assuming that these two questions are not copyright, I wanted to explore them as a convenient part of writing a scientific or popular paper in ecology, conservation, and wildlife and fisheries management. To protect the innocent, I will not identify which of many ecological colleagues has stimulated this blog.

The first question should be addressed in every scientific paper but clearly is not if you read a random sample of the articles in many ecological journals. So what? is the critical question of exactly what current problem this paper or book will contribute to. It is the microscopic and macroscopic focus of why we do science, and it does not matter at all if it addresses a minor problem or a major catastrophe like species loss in conservation. In writing one should assume that time is the critical limiting factor in our lives, and while it is fine to be entertained by watching a movie, scientists do not read scientific papers to be entertained. Some journals demand that the abstract of every paper ends with a statement of the importance of the research findings, captured by So what? Too often these statements are weak and editors as well as granting agencies should demand more incisive statements. Asking yourself So what? can be a useful guide as you progress in your research and evaluate others.

While most scientists should agree on the findings presented in a paper or lecture, not all of them will agree about the importance of the answer to So what? What is a major and important scientific finding for some may be of minor significance to others, but the key is to remember here that science is a broad church that should be progressing on a broad front, so that differences of opinion are to be expected, and we rely on evidence to evaluate these differences of opinion. Tests of ideas that turn out to be incorrect or only partly correct must not be considered as failures. If you doubt that, interview any senior scientist in your area and ask about progress and regress during their scientific career. If you find a scientist who insists that they were correct in all their ideas, you should probably request them to go into politics to improve decision making in the real world.

The second question is probably the most critical for all scientific research. Once research is completed, there are two paths. If the original question or problem is solved or answered, the question becomes what does this work suggest needs to be done to advance the general area of research. Most typically however a research project will end up with more questions than it solves. The growing end of science is the critical one, and by asking What next? we delve deeper into the area of research to fill in details that were not evident when it was started. Read Sutherland et al. (2013, 2022) for an excellent example of this approach in conservation science. A simple example of this approach comes from many conservation problems. A particular species of bird may be thought to be declining in numbers, so the first issue is whether this is correct, and so an investigation into the changes in abundance of the species becomes the first step. This could lead to an analysis of the demography of the species population, birth, death and movement rates could be determined to isolate more precisely why abundance is changing. Given these data, the next step might be (for example) why the death rate is increasing if indeed this is the case. The next step is what management methods can be applied to reduce the death rate, and does this situation apply to other closely related species. It is important that asking What next? does not imply a linear sequence in time, and a study could be designed to address more than one question at the same time. We finish the What next? approach with a web of information and conclusions that address a broader question than the original simple question. And What next? should not be answered with a broad set of statements like “climate change is the cause” but by suggestions of very specific experiments and studies to carry investigations forward.

The result in ecology is an increasing precision of thought into ecological interactions and the processes that link species, communities, and ecosystems to very large questions such as the environmental response to climate change. Not all questions need to be large-scale because there are important local questions about the adequacy of designated parks and protected areas to protect species, communities, and ecosystems. The key message is that ecological understanding is not static but grows incrementally by well-designed research programs that by themselves seem to address only small-scale issues.

Seemingly failed research programs are not to be scorned but rather to indicate what avenues of research have not led to good insights. In a sense ecological science is like an evolutionary tree in which some branches fade away with time and others blossom into a variety of forms that surprise us all. So, my advice is to carry on asking these two simple questions in science to help sharpen your research program.

Sutherland, W.J., Freckleton, R.P., Godfray, H.C.J., Beissinger, S.R., Benton, T., Cameron, D.D., Carmel, Y., Coomes, D.A., Coulson, T., Emmerson, M.C., Hails, R.S., Hays, G.C., Hodgson, D.J., Hutchings, M.J., Johnson, D., Jones, J.P.G., Keeling, M.J., Kokko, H., Kunin, W.E. & Lambin, X. (2013) Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology, 101, 58-67.doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J. & Jake M. Robinson, D.C.A., Tim Alamenciak, Matthew Armes, Nina Baranduin, Andrew J. Bladon, Martin F. Breed, Nicki Dyas, Chris S. Elphick, Richard A. Griffiths, Jonny Hughes, Beccy Middleton, Nick A. Littlewood, Roger Mitchell, William H. Morgan, Roy Mosley, Silviu O. Petrovan, Kit Prendergast, Euan G. Ritchie,Hugh Raven, Rebecca K. Smith, Sarah H. Watts, Ann Thornton (2022) Creating testable questions in practical conservation: a process and 100 questions. Conservation Evidence Journal, 19, 1-7.doi: 10.52201/CEJ19XIFF2753.

On Conservation Complexities

It is too often the case that biodiversity problems are managed by single species solutions. If you have too many deer in your parks or conservation areas, start a culling program. If your salmon fishing stocks are declining, cull seals and sea lions. The overall issue confounding these kinds of ‘solutions’ are now being recognized as a failure to appreciate the food web of the community and ecosystem in which the problem is embedded. Much of conservation action is directed at heading back to the “good old days” without very much data about what the ecosystem was like in the “good old days”.

Problems with introduced species top the list of conservation dilemmas, and nowhere are these problems more clearly illustrated than by the conservation dilemmas of New Zealand and Australia. If we concentrate our management efforts on introduced predators or herbivores, we face a large set of conservation issues, well-illustrated by the current New Zealand situation (Leathwick and Byrom 2023, Parkes and Murphy 2003).

New Zealand is a particularly strong case history because we have a good knowledge of its indigenous biodiversity from the time that people colonized these islands, as well as reasonable information about how things have changed since Europeans colonized the country (Thomson 1922). It is in some respects the classic case of biodiversity impacts from introduced species. The introduced species list is large and I can talk only about part of these species introduced mostly in the late 1800s. Seven species of deer were released in New Zealand, along with chamois, hares, rabbits, cats, hedgehogs, three mustelid species, brushtail possums, rats, house mice, along with all the usual farm animals like cattle, horses, and dogs (King & Forsyth 2021). The first concerns began about 100 years ago over ungulate browsing in forests and grasslands. Deer control began about 1930, and over 3 million deer were shot between 1932 and 1954. Caughley (1983) showed that this amount of control did not reduce the impact of browsing and grazing by ungulates in native ecosystems. Control and harvesting efforts decreased in recent years partly from a lack of government funding with the result that deer numbers have rebounded. The recognition of the impact of other pests like rabbits, weasels, and rats led to a focus on poison campaigns. Brushtail possum control with poisons was started to reduce tree browsing damage by the 1970s and gradually increased to reduce TB transmission to domestic livestock by the 1990s. Large scale predator control began in the late 1990s with a focus on rats, stoats (weasels, Mustela erminea), and possums with good success in preventing declines in threatened bird species. All this history is covered in detail in Leathwick and Byrom (2023).

These efforts led to a declaration in 2016 of “Predator Free New Zealand 2050” (PF2050) a compelling promise that would alleviate biodiversity problems by making New Zealand free of possums, mustelids, and rats by 2050, and predator control has thus became the focus of recent conservation action. The 2050 part of the promise was always a worry, since governments in general promise much in advances by that year, but the optimistic view is that predator control will achieve this objective if careful planning is made, adequate funding is available (c.f. Department of Conservation 2021), and well-articulated guidelines for eradication of invasive species are followed (Bomford & O’Brien 1995). The message is that biodiversity goals can be achieved if we move from single species management to a stable system of ecosystem management in the broad sense, including strong research, good public participation and support toward these goals, and that biodiversity conservation will be greatly boosted by thorough consultation with (if not leadership by) the indigenous groups involved.

The New Zealand specific situation cannot be applied directly to all biodiversity concerns, but the New Zealand conservation story and the 12 recommendations given in Leathwick and Byrom (2023) show the necessity of goal definition and coordination between the public, government, and private foundations if we are to maximize the effectiveness of our approach to the biodiversity crisis. Not every conservation issue involves introduced species, but the principle must be: What do we want to achieve, and how are we going to get there?

Bomford, M, & O’Brien, P 1995. Eradication or control for vertebrate pests? Wildlife Society Bulletin 23, 249–255.

Caughley, G. (1983) The Deer Wars: The Story of Deer in New Zealand. Heinemann, Auckland. ISBN: 0868633895.

Department of Conservation (2020). Annual Report. Available at: https://www.doc.govt. nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/goal-tactics-and-new-technology/tools-to-market/.    See also: PF2050-Limited-Annual-Report-2022.pdf

King, C.M. & Forsyth, D.M. (2021). eds. The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals. 3rd edition. CSIRO Publishing, Canberra. ISBN 978-1988592589.

Leathwick, J.R. & Byrom, A.E. (2023) The rise and rise of predator control: a panacea, or a distraction from conservation goals? New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 47, 3515. doi: 10.20417/nzjecol.47.3515.

Parkes, J. & Murphy, E. (2003) Management of introduced mammals in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 30, 335-359. doi:10.1080/03014223.2003.9518346.

Thomson, G.M. (1922) The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand. The University Press, Cambridge, England. doi: 10.5962/bhl.title.28093.

Should Empirical Ecology be all Long-term?

The majority of empirical ecology research published in our journals is short-term with the time span dictated by the need for 1–2-year Master’s degree studies and 3-4-year PhD research. This has been an excellent model when there was little of a framework for researching the critical questions ecologists ought to answer. Much of ecology in the good old days was based on equilibrium models of populations, communities, and ecosystems, an assumption we know to be irrelevant to a world with a changing climate. Perhaps we should have listened to the paleoecologists who kept reminding us that there was monumental change going on in the eras of glaciation and much earlier in the time of continental drift (Birks 2019). All of this argues that we need to change direction from short-term studies to long-term studies and long-term thinking.

There are many short-term ecological studies that are useful and should be done. It is necessary for management agencies to know if the spraying of forest insect pests this year reduces damage next year, and many similar problems exist that can be used for student projects. But the big issues of our day are long term problems, defined in the first place by longer than the research lifespan of the average ecologist, about 40 years. These big issues are insufficiently studied for two reasons. First, there is little funding for long term research. We can find a few exemptions to this statement, but they are few and many of them are flawed. Second, we as research scientists want to do something new that no one has done before. This approach leads to individual fame and sometimes fortune and is the social model behind many of the research prizes that we hear about in the media, the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur Awards, the National Medal of Science, the Kyoto Prize and many more. The point here is not that we should stop giving these awards (because they are socially useful), but that we should take a broader perspective on how research really works. Many have recognized that scientific advances are made by groups of scientists standing on the shoulders of an earlier generation. Perhaps some of the awards in medicine recognize this more frequently than other areas of science. My point is that large problems in ecology require a group effort by scientists that is too often unrecognized in favour of the individual fame model of science prizes.

A few examples may exemplify the need in ecology to support group studies of long-term problems. The simplest cases are in the media every day. The overharvesting of trees continues with little research into the long-term recovery of the harvested area and exactly how the forest community changes as it recovers. We mine areas for minerals and drill and mine tar sands for oil and gas with little long-term view of the recovery path which may stretch to hundreds or thousands of years while our current research program is long-term if it goes for 10 years. Canada has enough of these disturbance problems to fill the leger. The Giant Gold Mine in the Northwest Territories of Canada mined 220,000 kg of gold from 1948 to 2004 when it closed. It left 237 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust, a by-product for extracting gold. The long-term ecosystem problems from this toxic compound will last for centuries but you might expect it will be much sooner forgotten than subjected to long-term study.

So where are we ecologists with respect to these large problems? We bewail biodiversity loss and when you look at the available data and the long-term studies you would expect to measure biodiversity and, if possible, manage this biodiversity loss. But you will find only piecemeal short-term studies of populations, communities, and ecosystems that are affected. We tolerate this unsatisfactory scientific situation even for ecosystems as iconic as the Great Barrier Reef of eastern Australia where we have a small number of scientists monitoring the collapse of the reef from climate change. The only justification we can give is that “Mother Nature will heal itself” or in the scientific lingo, “the organisms involved will adapt to environmental change”. All the earth’s ecosystems have been filtered through a million years of geological change, so we should not worry, and all will be well for the future, or so the story goes.

I think few ecologists would agree with such nonsense as the statements above, but what can we do about it? My main emphasis here is long-term monitoring. No matter what you do, this should be part of your research program. If possible, do not count birds on a plot for 3 years and then stop. Do not live trap mice for one season and think you are done. If you have any control over funding recommendations, think continuity of monitoring. Long-term monitoring is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for managing biodiversity change.

There are many obstacles interfering with achieving this goal. Money is clearly one. If your research council requests innovation in all research proposals, they are probably driven by Apple iPhone producers who want a new model every year. For the past 50 years we have been able to fund monitoring in our Yukon studies without ever using the forbidden word monitor because it was not considered science by the government granting agencies. In one sense it is not whether you consider science = innovation or not, but part of the discussion about long term studies might be shifted to consider the model of weather stations, and to discuss why we continue to report temperatures and CO2 levels daily when we have so much past data. No one would dream of shutting down weather monitoring now after the near fiasco around whether or not to measure CO2 in the atmosphere (Harris, 2010, Marx et al. 2017).

Another obstacle has been the destruction of research sites by human developments. Anyone with a long history of doing field research can tell you of past study areas that have been destroyed by fire or are now parking lots, or roads, or suburbia. This problem could be partly alleviated by the current proposals to maintain 30% of the landscape in protected areas. We should however avoid designating areas like the toxic waste site of the Giant Gold Mine as a “protected area” for ecological research.

Where does this all lead? Consider long-term monitoring if you can do the research as part of your overall program. Read the recent contributions of Hjeljord, and Loe (2022) and Wegge et al. (2022) as indicators of the direction in which we need to move, and if you need more inspiration about monitoring read Lindenmayer (2018).

Birks, H.J.B. (2019) Contributions of Quaternary botany to modern ecology and biogeography. Plant Ecology & Diversity, 12, 189-385.doi: 10.1080/17550874.2019.1646831.

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

Hjeljord, O. & Loe, L.E. (2022) The roles of climate and alternative prey in explaining 142 years of declining willow ptarmigan hunting yield. Wildlife Biology, 2022, e01058.doi: 10.1002/wlb3.01058.

Lindenmayer, D. (2018) Why is long-term ecological research and monitoring so hard to do? (And what can be done about it). Australian Zoologist, 39, 576-580.doi: 10.7882/az.2017.018.

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.

Wegge, P., Moss, R. & Rolstad, J. (2022) Annual variation in breeding success in boreal forest grouse: Four decades of monitoring reveals bottom-up drivers to be more important than predation. Ecology and Evolution.12, e9327. doi: 10.1002/ece3.9327.

How to Destroy a Research Station

I have had the ‘privilege’ over the last 60 years of watching three ecological field stations be destroyed. Admittedly this is a small sample, against which every ecologist can complain, but I wanted to present to you my list of how to achieve this kind of destruction should you ever be commanded to do so. I will not name names or specific places, since the aim is to develop a general theory rather than to name and pillory specific historical actions and people. I suggest that nine rules are needed to proceed smoothly in this matter if you are given this job.

  1.  Have a clear vision why you wish to destroy an existing station. Do not vacillate. The background may be money, or philosophy of science, or orders from those higher in the echelon, or a personal peeve. Remember you are an administrator, and no one can challenge your wisdom in making major changes or closing the station.  
  2. Speak to none of the current users of the research station. If the research station has a Users Committee, avoid talking to them until after all the decisions are made. A users committee is just an honorary appointment, and it helps if very few of the users are actually people who do research at the station. It is very important that your vision should not be clouded by personnel or research programs currently running at the station. And it is best if the scientists using the station have no information except gossip about the changes that are coming.
  3. Avoid loose talk around your office. If you or your group are paying a visit in the field to the research station before closing it or repositioning its purpose, give out no information to anyone on future courses of action.
  4. Communicate upwards in the hierarchy, never downwards. You must keep all the members of the higher echelons fully informed. Do not dwell on the details of your progress in destruction but emphasize the gains that will flow from this dismantling. Tell fibs as much as you like because no one will question your version of events.
  5. Never read anything about the history of the research station or read any of the papers and reports that have originated there. The key is that you as an administrator know what should be done, and the last consideration is history. Administrators must keep a clear mind, unconcerned with historical trivia.
  6. Let none of the destruction news reach the media lest the public in general might begin to see what is happening. Newspaper and media coverage are rarely flattering to bureaucrats. If possible, line up a sympathetic media person who can talk about the brilliant future of the research station and the wisdom of the decisions you have made.
  7. Take a strong business approach. Do not worry if you must fire people currently running the research station or eject scientists currently working there. Everyone must retire at some point and all business leaders have solid recipes for hiring contractors to take care of any problems with the buildings. No matter what the extra cost.
  8. Sell the research station if you possibly can in order to gain revenue for your yet to be revealed vision. You may talk complete nonsense to explain why you are making major changes or closing the research station because few of your possible critics will be in a position to distinguish nonsense statements from truth. ‘Alternative facts’ are very useful if your decisions are questioned.
  9. Realize that if you have made a mistake in destroying a research station, your employer will not know that for several years. By that time, you will have ascended in the hierarchy of your employment unit for having carried out such a definitive action. And if your co-workers know the poor job you are doing, they will write sterling letters of reference for you to move you to another position in a different department or agency so that the worse the job you have done, the stronger will be the reference letters to recommend you for another job.

There is almost no literature I can find on this topic of administering a field station. If you think field stations are eternal, it may be a sign that you are very young, or you are very fortunate in working for an agency where moving forward is correctly labeled as progress. I have always thought that long-term field research stations were considered sacred but clearly not everyone agrees. Administrators must have something to do to leave their mark on the world for better or worse. All we can do is watch and be alert for emerging symptoms of collapse.

Swanson, F.J. (2015). Confluence of arts, humanities, and science at sites of long-term ecological inquiry. Ecosphere 6 (8), Article 132. doi: 10.1890/ES15-00139.1.

What is the Ratio of Thought to Action in Biodiversity Conservation?

Many ecologists who peruse the conservation literature will come away with a general concern about the amount of effort that goes into thoughts about how conservation should be done and how much action is currently being carried out to achieve these goals in the field. My premise here is that currently the person-power given to thought greatly exceeds the person-power devoted to actually achieving the broad conservation goal of protecting biodiversity. Let me illustrate this with one dilemma in conservation: should we be concerned predominately with the loss of threatened and endangered species, or should we concentrate on the major dominant species in our ecosystems? Of course, this is not a black-or-white dichotomy, and the first answer is that we should do both. But the economist would suggest that resources are limited, and you cannot do both, so the question should be reworded as to what fraction of resources should go to one or the other of these two activities.

Consider the example of threatened and endangered species. Many of these species are rare numerically at present. In the past they may have been abundant but that is not always the case. The ecologist will know as a universal constant that most species in ecosystems are rare, and because they are rare, they are most difficult to study to answer the simple question why are they rare? Pick your favourite rare species and try to answer this question. For some species under persecution by humans the answer is simple; for most it is not, and ecologists fall back on explanations like the resources they require are not abundant, or their niche is specialized, meaningless statements that can be called panchrestons unless we have infinite time and funds to find out exactly what the limiting resources are, or why their niche is specialized. Now let us make a simple thought experiment that asks: what would happen if all these rare and endangered species disappeared from the world’s ecosystems? The first response would be total outrage that anyone would ask such a terrible question, so it is best not to talk about it. The second would be that we would be outraged if our favorite bird or frog disappeared like the passenger pigeon. The third might be that we should consider this question seriously.

Some community and ecosystem ecologists might wager that nothing would happen to ecosystem dynamics if all the rare and endangered species disappeared. No one of course would admit to such a point of view since it would end their career. At the moment we are in the unenviable state of doing the opposite experiment on the world’s coral reefs which are suffering in an ocean that is acidifying and heating up, pollution that is increasing, and overfishing that is common (Fraser et al. 2019, Lebrec et al. 2019, Romero-Torres et al. 2020). Coral reefs are an extreme example of human impacts on areas of high conservation and economic value such that the entire ecosystem will have to reconstruct itself with corals of greater tolerance to current and future conditions, a future with no clear guess of what positive effects will transpire.

Perhaps the message of both coral reef conservation and terrestrial ecosystem conservation is that you cannot destroy the major species without major consequences. Australia provides a good example of the consequences of altering predator abundance in an ecosystem. The dingo (Canis familaris) has been persecuted because of predation on sheep, and at the same time domestic cats (Felis catus) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have been introduced to the continent. The ecological question is whether the reintroduction of the dingo to places where it has been exterminated will reduce the abundance of cats and foxes, and thus save naïve prey species from local extinction (Newsome et al. 2015). The answer to this question is far from clear (Morgan et al. 2017, Hunter and Letnic 2022) and may differ in different ecosystems within Australia.  

The bottom line is that our original question about rare species cannot be answered. There is much literature on introduced predators affecting food webs, following from Estes et al. (2011) important paper. and now there is much research effort on the roles of apex predators and consumers on ecosystem dynamics (Serrouya et al. 2021). Much of this effort concentrates on the common animals rather than the rare ones with which we began this discussion. Much more action in the field is needed on all conservation fronts since in my opinion the amount of thought we have available now will last field workers for the rest of the century.

Estes, J.A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J.S., Power, M.E., Berger, J., et al. (2011). Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333, 301-306. doi: 10.1126/science.1205106.

Fraser, K.A., Adams, V.M., Pressey, R.L., and Pandolfi, J.M. (2019). Impact evaluation and conservation outcomes in marine protected areas: A case study of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Biological Conservation 238, 108185. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.07.030

Hunter, D.O. and Letnic, M. (2022). Dingoes have greater suppressive effect on fox populations than poisoning campaigns. Australian Mammalogy 44. doi: 10.1071/AM21036.

Lebrec, M., Stefanski, S., Gates, R., Acar, S., Golbuu, Y., Claudel-Rusin, A., Kurihara, H., Rehdanz, K., Paugam-Baudoin, D., Tsunoda, T., and Swarzenski, P.W. (2019). Ocean acidification impacts in select Pacific Basin coral reef ecosystems. Regional Studies in Marine Science 28, 100584. doi: 10.1016/j.rsma.2019.100584.

Morgan, H.R., Hunter, J.T., Ballard, G., Reid, N.C.H., and Fleming, P.J.S. (2017). Trophic cascades and dingoes in Australia: Does the Yellowstone wolf–elk–willow model apply? Food Webs 12, 76-87. doi: 10.1016/j.fooweb.2016.09.003.

Newsome, TM., Ballard, G.-A., Crowther, M.S., Dellinger, J.A., Fleming, P.J.S., et al. (2015). Resolving the value of the dingo in ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 23, 201-208.  doi: 10.1111/rec.12186.

Romero-Torres, M., Acosta, A., Palacio-Castro, A.M., Treml, E.A., Zapata, F.A., Paz-García, D.A., and Porter, J.W. (2020). Coral reef resilience to thermal stress in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Global Change Biology 26, 3880-3890. doi: 10.1111/gcb.15126

Serrouya, R., Dickie, M., Lamb, C., Oort, H. van, Kelly, A.P., DeMars, C., et al. (2021). Trophic consequences of terrestrial eutrophication for a threatened ungulate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 288, 20202811. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2811.

On How Genomics will not solve Ecological Problems

I am responding to this statement in an article in the Conversation by Anne Murgai on April 19, 2022 (https://phys.org/news/2022-04-african-scientists-genes-species.html#google_vignette) : The opening sentence of her article on genomics encapsulates one of the problems of conservation biology today:

“DNA is the blueprint of life. All the information that an organism needs to survive, reproduce, adapt to environments or survive a disease is in its DNA. That is why genomics is so important.”

If this is literally correct, almost all of ecological science should disappear, and our efforts to analyse changes in geographic distributions, abundance, survival and reproductive rates, competition with other organisms, wildlife diseases, conservation of rare species and all things that we discuss in our ecology journals are epiphenomena, and thus our slow progress in sorting out these ecological issues is solely because we have not yet sequenced all our species to find the answers to everything in their DNA.

This is of course not correct, and the statement quoted above is a great exaggeration. But, if it is believed to be correct, it has some important consequences for scientific funding. I will confine my remarks to the fields of conservation and ecology. The first and most important is that belief in this view of genetic determinism is having large effects on where conservation funding is going. Genomics has been a rising star in biological science for the past 2 decades because of technological advances in sequencing DNA. As such, given a fixed budget, it is taking money away from the more traditional approaches to conservation such as setting up protected areas and understanding the demography of declining populations. Hausdorf (2021) explores these conflicting problems in an excellent review, and he concludes that often more cost-effective methods of conservation should be prioritized over genomic analyses. Examples abound of conservation problems that are immediate and typically underfunded (e.g., Turner et al. 2021, Silva et al, 2021).   

What is the resolution of these issues? I can recommend only that those in charge of dispensing funding for conservation science examine the hypotheses being tested and avoid endless funding for descriptive genomics that claim to have a potential and immediate outcome that will forward the main objectives of conservation. Certainly, some genomic projects will fit into this desirable science category, but many will not, and the money should be directed elsewhere.  

The Genomics Paradigm listed above is used in the literature on medicine and social science, and a good critique of this view from a human perspective is given in a review by Feldman and Riskin (2022). Scientists dealing with human breast cancer or schizophrenia show the partial but limited importance of DNA in determining the cause or onset of these complex conditions (e.g., Hilker et al 2018, Manobharathi et al. 2021). Conservation problems are equally complex, and in the climate emergency have a short time frame for action. I suspect that genomics for all its strengths will have only a minor part to play in the resolution of ecological problems and conservation crises in the coming years.

Feldman, Marcus W. and Riskin, Jessica (2022). Why Biology is not Destiny. The New York Review of Books 69 (April 21, 2022), 43-46.

Hausdorf, Bernhard (2021). A holistic perspective on species conservation. Biological Conservation 264, 109375. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109375.

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T.M., Nordentoft, M., and Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Spectrum based on the Nationwide Danish Twin Register. Biological Psychiatry 83, 492-498. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.017.

Manobharathi, V., Kalaiyarasi, D., and Mirunalini, S. (2021). A concise critique on breast cancer: A historical and scientific perspective. Research Journal of Biotechnology 16, 220-230.

Samuel, G. N. and Farsides, B. (2018). Public trust and ‘ethics review’ as a commodity: the case of Genomics England Limited and the UK’s 100,000 genomes project. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 21, 159-168. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9810-1.

Silva, F., Kalapothakis, E., Silva, L., and Pelicice, F. (2021). The sum of multiple human stressors and weak management as a threat for migratory fish. Biological Conservation 264, 109392. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109392.

Turner, A., Wassens, S., and Heard, G. (2021). Chytrid infection dynamics in frog populations from climatically disparate regions. Biological Conservation 264, 109391. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109391.

On Global Science and Local Science

I suggest that the field of ecology is fragmenting into two large visions of the science which for the sake of simplicity I will call Global Science and Local Science. This fragmentation is not entirely new, and some history might be in order.

Local Science deals with local problems, and while it aspires to develop conclusions that apply to a broader area than the small study area, it has always been tied to useful answers for practical questions. Are predators the major control of caribou declines in northern Canada? Can rats on islands reduce ground-nesting birds to extinction? Does phosphate limit primary production in temperate lakes? Historically Local Science has arisen from the practical problems of pest control and wildlife and fisheries management with a strong focus on understanding how populations and communities work and how humans might solve the ecological problems they have largely produced (Kingsland 2005). The focus of Local Science was always on a set of few species that were key to the problem being studied. As more and more wisdom accumulated on local problems, ecologists turned to broadening the scope of enquiry, asking for example if solutions discovered in Minnesota might also be useful in England or vice versa. Consequently, Local Science began to be amalgamated into a broader program of Global Science.

Global Science can be defined in several ways. One is purely financial and big dollars; this not what I will discuss here. I want to discuss Global Science in terms of ecological syntheses, and Global Science papers can often be recognized by having dozens to hundreds of authors, all with data to share, and with meta-analysis as the major tool of analysis. Global Science is now in my opinion moving away from the experimental approach that was a triumph of Local Science. The prelude to Global Science was the International Biological Program (IBP) of the 1970s that attempted to produce large-scale systems analyses of communities and ecosystems but had little effect in convincing many ecologists that this was the way to the future. At the time the problem was largely the development of a theory of stability, a property barely visible in most ecological systems.

Global Science depends on describing patterns that occur across large spatial scales. These patterns can be discovered only by having an extensive, reliable set of local studies and this leads to two problems. The first is that there may be too few reliable local studies. This may occur because different ecologists use different methods of measurement, do not use a statistically reliable sampling design, or may be constrained by a lack of funding or time. The second problem is that different areas may show different patterns of the variables under measurement or have confounding causes that are not recognized. The approach through meta-analysis is fraught with the decisions that must be made to include or exclude specific studies. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the global insect decline surveyed 5100 papers and used 166 of them for analysis (van Klink et al. 2020). It is not that the strengths and limitations of meta-analysis have been missed (Gurevitch et al. 2018) but rather the question of whether they are increasing our understanding of the Earth’s ecology. Meta-analyses can be useful in suggesting patterns that require more detailed analyses. In effect they violate many of the rules of conventional science in not having an experimental design, so that they suggest patterns but can be validated only by a repeat of the observations. So, in the best situations meta-analyses lead us back to Local Science. In some situations, meta-analyses lead to no clear understanding at all, as illustrated in the conclusions of Geary et al. (2020) who investigated the response of terrestrial vertebrate predators to fire:

“There were no clear, general responses of predators to fire, nor relationships with geographic area, biome or life-history traits (e.g. body mass, hunting strategy and diet). Responses varied considerably between species.” (page 955)

Note that this study is informative in that it indicates that ecologists have not yet identified the variables that determine the response of predators to fire. In other cases, meta-analysis has been useful in redirecting ecological questions because the current global model does not fit the facts very well (Szuwalski et al. 2015).

The result of this movement within both ecological and conservation science toward Global Science has been a shift in the amount of field work being done. Rios-Saldana et al. (2018) surveyed the conservation literature over the last 35 years and found that fieldwork-based publications decreased by 20% in comparison to a rise of 600% and 800% in modelling and data analysis studies. This conclusion could be interpreted that ecologists now realize that less fieldwork is needed at this time, or perhaps the opposite. 

In an overview of ecological science David Currie (2019) described an approach to understanding how progress in ecology has differed from that in the physical sciences. He suggests that the physical sciences focused on a set of properties of nature whose variation they analyzed. They developed ‘laws’ Like Newton’s laws or motion that could be tested in simple or complex systems. By contrast ecology has developed largely by asking how processes like competition or predation work, and not by asking questions about the properties of natural systems, which is what interests the general public trying to solve problems in conservation or pest or fisheries management. Currie (2019) summarized his approach as follows:

“Successful disciplines identify specific goals and measure progress toward those goals. Predictive accuracy of properties of nature is a measure of that progress in ecology. Predictive accuracy is the objective evidence of understanding. It is the most useful tool that science can offer society.” (page 18)

Many of these same questions underlay the critical appraisal of ecology by Peters (1991).

There is no one approach to ecological science, but we need to continue to ask what progress is being made with every approach. These are key questions for the future of ecological research, and they are worthy of much more discussion because they determine what students will be taught and what kinds of research will be favoured for funding in the future.

Currie, D.J. (2019). Where Newton might have taken ecology. Global Ecology and Biogeography 28, 18-27. doi: 10.1111/geb.12842.

Geary, W.L., Doherty, T.S., Nimmo, D.G., Tulloch, A.I.T., and Ritchie, E.G. (2020). Predator responses to fire: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology 89, 955-971. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13153.

Gurevitch, J., Koricheva, J., Nakagawa, S., and Stewart, G. (2018). Meta-analysis and the science of research synthesis. Nature 555, 175-182. doi: 10.1038/nature25753.

Kingsland, Sharon .E. (2005) ‘The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890-2000  ‘ (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.) ISBN: 0801881714

Peters, R.H. (1991) ‘A Critique for Ecology.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.) ISBN: 0521400171

Ríos-Saldaña, C. Antonio, Delibes-Mateos, Miguel, and Ferreira, Catarina C. (2018). Are fieldwork studies being relegated to second place in conservation science? Global Ecology and Conservation 14: e00389. doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2018.e00389.

Szuwalski, C.S., Vert-Pre, K.A., Punt, A.E., Branch, T.A., and Hilborn, R. (2015). Examining common assumptions about recruitment: a meta-analysis of recruitment dynamics for worldwide marine fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 16, 633-648. doi: 10.1111/faf.12083.

van Klink, R., Bowler, D.E., Gongalsky, K.B., Swengel, A.B., Gentile, A. and Chase, J.M. (2020). Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science 368, 417-420. doi: 10.1126/science.aax9931.

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.