The Central Predicament of Ecological Science

Ecology like all the hard sciences aims to find generalizations that are eternally true. Just as physicists assume that the universal law of gravitation will still be valid 10,000 years from now, so do ecologists assume that we can find laws or generalizations for populations and ecosystems that will be valid into the future. But the reality for ecological science is quite different. If the laws of ecology depend on the climate being stable, soil development being ongoing, evolution being optimized, and extinction being slow in human-generation time, we are in serious trouble.

Paleoecology is an important subdiscipline of ecology because, like human history, we need to understand the past. But the generalizations of paleoecology may be of little use to understand the future changes the Earth faces for one major reason – human disturbance of both climate and landscapes. Climates are changing due to rising greenhouse gases that have a long half-life. Land and water are being appropriated by a rising human population that is very slow to stabilize, so natural habitats are continually lost. There is little hope in the absence of an Apocalypse that these forces will alleviate during the next 200 years. Given these changes in the Anthropocene where does ecology sit and what can we do about it?

If climate is a major driver of ecological systems, as Andrewartha and Birch (1954) argued (to the scorn of the Northern Hemisphere ecologists of the time), the rules of the past will not necessarily apply to a future in which climate is changing. Plant succession, that slow and orderly process we now use to predict future communities, will change in speed and direction under the influence of climatic shifts and the introduction of new plant species, plant pests, and diseases that we have little control over. Technological optimists in agriculture and forestry assume that by genetic manipulations and proper artificial selection we can outwit climate change and solve pest problems, and we can only hope that they are successful. Understanding all these changes in slow-moving ecosystems depends on climate models that are accurate in projecting future climate changes. Success to date has been limited because of both questionable biology and poor statistical procedures in climate models (Frank 2019; Kumarathunge et al. 2019; Yates et al. 2018).

If prediction is the key to ecological understanding, as Houlahan et al. (2017) have cogently argued, we are in a quandary if the models that provide predictions wander with time to become less predictive. Yates et al. (2018) have provided an excellent review of the challenges of making good models for ecological prediction. As such their review is either encouraging – ‘here are the challenges in bold type’ – or terribly depressing – ‘where are the long-term, precise data for predictive model evaluation?’ My colleagues and I have spent 47 years trying to provide reliable data on one small part of the boreal forest ecosystem, and the models we have developed to predict changes in this ecosystem are probably still too imprecise to use for management. Additional years of observations produce some ecosystem states that have been predictable but other changes that we have never seen before over this time frame of nearly 50 years.

In contrast to the optimism of Yates et al. (2018), Houlahan et al. (2017) state that:

Ecology, with a few exceptions, has abandoned prediction and therefore the ability to demonstrate understanding. Here we address how this has inhibited progress in ecology and explore how a renewed focus on prediction would benefit ecologists. The lack of emphasis on prediction has resulted in a discipline that tests qualitative, imprecise hypotheses with little concern for whether the results are generalizable beyond where and when the data were collected.  (page 1)

I see this difference in views as a dilemma because despite much talk, there is little money or interest in the field work that would deliver reliable data for models in order to test their accuracy in predictions at small and large scales. An example this year is the failure of the expected large salmon runs to the British Columbia fishery, with model failure partly due to the lack of monitoring in the North Pacific (https://globalnews.ca/news/5802595/bc-salmon-stocks-plunge/; https://www.citynews1130.com/2019/09/09/worst-year-for-salmon/ , and in contrast with Alaska runs: https://www.adn.com/business-economy/2019/07/25/bristol-bay-sockeye-harvest-blowing-away-forecast-once-again/ ). Whatever the cause of the failure of B.C. salmon runs in 2019, the lack of precision in models of a large commercial fishery that has been studied for at least 65 yeas is not a vote of confidence in our current ecological modelling.

Andrewartha, H.G. and Birch, L.C. (1954) ‘The Distribution and Abundance of Animals.’ University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 782 pp.

Frank, P. (2019). Propagation of error and the reliability of global air temperature projections. Frontiers in Earth Science 7, 223. doi: 10.3389/feart.2019.00223.

Houlahan, J.E., McKinney, S.T., Anderson, T.M., and McGill, B.J. (2017). The priority of prediction in ecological understanding. Oikos 126, 1-7. doi: 10.1111/oik.03726.

Kumarathunge, D.P., Medlyn, B.E., Drake, J.E., Tjoelker, M.G., Aspinwall, M.J., et al. (2019). Acclimation and adaptation components of the temperature dependence of plant photosynthesis at the global scale. New Phytologist 222, 768-784. doi: 10.1111/nph.15668.

Yates, K.L., Bouchet, P.J., Caley, M.J., Mengersen, K., Randin, C.F., Parnell, S., Fielding, A.H., Bamford, A.J., et al. (2018). Outstanding challenges in the transferability of ecological models. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 790-802. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2018.08.001.

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