The Changing Face of Ecology: Part 3

In the latest edition of our ongoing look at how ecology has changed over the last half-century, 5 experts talk technology, modelling, and the study of humans. But we also cover some of the pitfalls of recent leaps forward, including the loss of appreciation for species physiology.

You can also check out parts one, two, and our special on fish ecology.

Johanna Schmitt, Distinguished Professor, Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California

Plant genomics and evolutionary ecology

I started at graduate school in 1974. Back then ecologists were lone wolves, working on their own system. It was important to develop your own system, particularly a system that was pristine. The idea was that you were studying natural systems. And people worked pretty much alone. Now ecology has become interdisciplinary, people have realised they don’t all have the skills they need, and so they work together in big groups. Another thing is that people have learned that there’s no such thing as a pristine system. So it was interesting to watch throughout the 90s, my ecologist friends who were very proud of working on pristine systems all of a sudden realising that rapid anthropogenic change is pervasive, and we’re going to have to start looking at the impacts of that.

More recently, the big changes have come with the advent of genomics and big data. And being able to able to apply those things to microbial systems. All of those are big thrusts in ecology that weren’t possible until a few years ago. And the other thing is that when I was a graduate student, there were no female professors at my department in Stanford. The representation of women faculty in ecology is not 50/50 yet, but it’s really increased over the last few decades.

Tarmo Raadik, Senior Scientist, Freshwater Ecology, Arthur Rylah Institue for Environmental Research

Aquatic Biodiversity & Conservation

There are also a lot more concepts being tested now in ecology. Even the concept of source-sink dynamics, small changes in definitions like that. 30-40 years ago we were all about the big questions, about ecosystems or keystone species for example. But now they’re focussing on a lot of the finer scale differences, drivers of ecosystem response and the like. We’ve gone from a big lens to a higher magnification. I think that’s the important change that’s happened.

I’ve also seen the ability of biologists at all sorts of levels to be able to be integrate a lot of this ecological knowledge into what they do. They may not be key drivers of the research, but they’re able to access a lot of this ecological thinking, it’s not as scary as it used to be, because it’s more mainstream. Things are more easily adaptable and accessible to a lot more people than just ecologists, and I think that’s important. Ecology has become more mainstream, and it’s also opened up a bit more to be accepting of other fields.

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“…there’s been huge growth in what we can do, but I think there’s been some loss in understanding the behavioural base of biology.” (Image Credit: Shannon McCauley)

Shannon McCauley, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Toronto

Community ecology

I think that there’s been a change in the perception of the value of natural history, and in my opinion not in a good way. I think that there used to be this very heavy emphasis on taxonomy and identification, and to a certain extent maybe an overemphasis. Learning to identify without doing the conceptual basis of what the important questions are.

I would also say undergraduates these days generally don’t take as many of what we call the ologies. Herpetology, ornithology, entomology, all of those where you learn the basic biology of those organisms, how to identify them, their life histories, their physiologies. I think that’s unfortunate. Of course it’s super important to understand the large conceptual issues, but there are organisms fitting into those issues. Without a good understanding of physiology, you could look at two species and say they’re similar, they must respond in the same way to climate change. But they don’t.

Knowing how to identify a species and knowing something about their biology is really essential to understanding the results of a model for instance, and even to asking the right questions. And so there’s been huge growth in what we can do, but I think there’s been some loss in understanding the behavioural base of biology.

Celine Frere, Senior Research Fellow, University of the Sunshine Coast

Genomics & Animal Behaviour

For me I think it’s innovation in the technology that we can now deploy to understand ecology, specifically about animal behaviour and how they negotiate their landscape. I’m a geneticist as well, and now we can sequence full genomes and start really tackling some interesting questions about adaptations and what that means from a genome perspective. We couldn’t do that when I started. It was only a few molecular markers, that was it and now we can get thousands of genetic markers, and that’s really powerful.​”

Kath Handasyde, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne

Wildlife Conservation Biology

Technology itself now allows us to ask questions that we couldn’t ask before. I have a number of friends who are seal biologists, when I started in biology all seal biology was about the breeding colonies because it was the only time you could see and access them. Then development through the 80s led to incredible levels of sophistication, and now we can put a time-depth recorder on them, an accelerometer, a temperature detector, sometimes even an implanted physiological monitor system. We know how deep the animals are, what current they’re foraging in, how fast they’re moving. That whole area has opened our eyes.

It’s the same for nocturnal and shy animals. Radio-telemetry was our first big jump forward. In the old days we’d map how much space animals needed by trapping them and marking them and then recapturing them. But it was completely constrained by where you put the traps. And at some sites within their range they might not go into a trap at all. Miniaturisation was a huge step as well. When we first put radio collars on a koala, no one was putting radio collars on animals that small. Now Sirtrack in New Zealand have a radio transmitter for a dragonfly! A few years back we put transmitters that lasted about 20 days on 15gm Antechinus. The last big step was GPS tracking. We’re not disturbing the animals’ behaviour any more, because we don’t need to go out and track them.

The other emergent thing is this complex and large-scale discipline area of modelling. It allows people to ask totally different questions. So you can fit in lots of data, you can run multiple iterations, create and test predictions. The issue with modelling to me is that models are a framework, so the better the data and parameters that you plug in, the more accurate the framework. If you don’t know about the biology and you’re just using guesses and random parameters, the models might not make sense. Additionally, the results of models are often given to someone higher in the system who makes decisions, but might not appreciate the subtleties of a model. The constraints, uncertainties and such. People always want absolute numbers, and but you can’t actually give an exact population number with a model. But modelling is an amazing advance. Because it gives us a predictive framework, and I just think that’s cool.

Marlene Zuk, prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, has been trying to encourage more fact-based discussions about gender in the scientific community

“Now it’s almost obligatory to talk about anthropogenic change and ecology in the world today and what we’re going to do about various problems.” (Image Credit: Marlene Zuk)

Marlene Zuk, Professor, Associate Dean for Faculty, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota

Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour

In several ways, maybe most noticeably that people have gotten much more interested in applied questions. Now it’s almost obligatory to talk about anthropogenic change and ecology in the world today and what we’re going to do about various problems. To the point at which for instance, if you read blogs and look online the question always comes of up concerning how much we should change our own behaviour. And ecologists are all going to conferences and flying all over the world. That has a huge carbon footprint, and maybe that’s something we should really be questioning. I think that kind of awareness, of both environmental and human issues associated with ecology has really increased over the last 20 – 25 years.

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