What ideas or discoveries have had the greatest impact on the science of ecology?


We’re celebrating the 100th birthday of the Ecological Society of America. Ecology has come a long way over this short period of time. The ESA is asking us (via #ESA100) to answer the question:

What ideas or discoveries have had the greatest impact on ecological science over the last century?

Here are our responses:

From Amy Parachnowitsch:

Thinking about the last 100 years of ecology is a little daunting, sometimes I feel like I have barely dipped my toe in. But when thinking about anything over the last 100 years, it is difficult to disentangle the field/topic from all the other advances that have coincided with it. When I started my undergraduate training, email was a pretty new and fancy thing, so even thinking about the last 10-20 years it is difficult to tease apart advances in technology and the field of ecology. Of course, computing and the internet have all contributed hugely to advances in ecology in the last 100 years. I would add to that, the rise of statistics and experimental design, which have allowed researchers to more explicitly test hypotheses have allowed huge advances in our understanding of the natural world.

But when reflecting on #ESA100, I thought about what discoveries have most influenced my own work studying the ecology and evolution of flowers. Here are the three that immediately popped into mind:

Measurement of natural selection. This somewhat simple concept has really spurred on the field of evolutionary ecology and allowed researchers to estimate the process of evolution in the field. There are now hundreds of selection estimates of selection from across the tree of life and a number of meta-analyses have started to derive broad patterns of what traits experience selection, and how selection varies across space and time. Although we are still somewhat ignorant of the causes of selection and how selection operates on complex phenotypes (e.g. correlational selection), by measuring selection in the field we can bridge the gap between ecological and evolutionary processes. Debates continue as to the best way to measure selection, what are valid estimates of fitness, and more. But for me, the idea of studying the link between ecology and evolution was what first excited me to go on to a masters and I continue to try to understand how ecological interactions lead to evolutionary change. I’m not sure what exactly I would be doing now if it wasn’t for the influential paper and the work it inspired, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be @EvoEcoAmy.

Chemical quantification. As gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and high performance liquid chromatography techniques have become more accessible, ecologists have been able to explore the world of chemistry. For me, the non-chemist, I have delved into the world of floral scents. Generally, I think I have a terrible sense of smell and especially when I’m around other floral scent people who seem to be able to detect and identify scents like a professional wine taster. But luckily for me I can read a chromatogram instead. Although volatile compounds have been identified from 100’s of flowering plants, we’re still just scratching the surface of how these play into the ecology of plants. And of course, floral scents are a mere slice of the field of chemical ecology, which has been expanding exponentially along with the ease of the technology.

Spectrophotometry. In a similar way to GC-MS and HPLC, spectrophotometry allows us to view colours such as the reflectance of flowers beyond the limitations of our own photoreceptors. Because other animals do not see in the same way we do, (insects can see UV, for example) before such machines, our understanding of the diversity of colour is limited to what we can see. So I guess you can say I am a bit fascinated by the secret lives of flowers that goes on without our seeing/smelling it.

There are a lot of important theories and ideas that have greatly influenced floral evolutionary ecology research but I’ll stop there before I get too navel gazing.

From Terry McGlynn:

First, a list of big things from the past 100 years — in no particular order — that have had huge impacts on ecology.

If you’re familiar with the correspondence of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, then you probably would agree that we as a community don’t communicate any better nowadays than we did more than a hundred years ago. We just do it more quickly.

It’s no accident that the biggest advances in ecology and evolution have come from people who combined observations from a variety far-flung locations with careful observations in one-place over a long period of time. To put new ideas together in ecology requires a deep view of the spatial distributions of organisms, and an understanding of temporal processes that change the composition of populations and communities.

This is why I put Biological Field Stations on the list above. Field stations allow people all over the world to make long-term scientific observations in locations that otherwise would not be logistically difficult to study in the long term. Some of the biggest advances in ecology have happened because of work done at a specific field station, or from the synthesis of data from many field stations.

I could also write a few paragraphs about all of the other items that I listed above. But I also could work on a manuscript. And to make progress in ecology, one guiding principle is: When in doubt, work on a manuscript.

What do you think are the more important ideas and discoveries in ecology over the last 100 years? Feel free to leave a comment, or, better yet, if you’re a social media person, today’s a good day to share your thoughts, using #ESA100.

6 thoughts on “What ideas or discoveries have had the greatest impact on the science of ecology?

  1. Since we’re thinking outside the box about external-to-ecology changes that had big impacts on ecology, I think you have to list the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s. Also the post-WWII advent of major federal funding for basic science (e.g., the NSF).

    And I look forward to “blogging” being the top of everyone’s list a century from now for #ESA200. ;-)

    • You’re right, I definitely should have thought of Sputnik. The environnental movement of the 60s and later occurred to me, but I didn’t include it because honestly I’m not sure if it has had a big effect on what ecologists do or know, other than creating a bunch of protected areas. I’d be glad to be wrong about this, though.

      • But the environmental movement is a big reason ecology exists as a professional discipline at all. It’s a big reason ecology started to attract a lot more interest, funding, and other resources starting in the 1960s. If you’re going to include other factors that ultimately led to there being lots more ecologists than there would’ve otherwise been (like women’s suffrage and NSF), I think you’ve got to include the environmental movement.

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