Many posts on this blog are critical–we slay zombie ideas, we call out statistical machismo, we try to derail bandwagons, we praise contrarianism. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that’s emphatically not because I and the other bloggers here think all of ecology, and all of the ecologists who do it, are always wrong. Far from it! It’s just that those areas where we do have criticisms make for the most interesting posts. Posts that agree with the conventional wisdom, explain the familiar, and preach to the converted are mostly boring and don’t draw many readers. Further, even our most critical posts generally have a positive element–we suggest alternative approaches ecologists could take, alternative questions they could ask, etc.
But nevertheless, I decided that it’s time to take a break from the zombie slaying and contrarianism. Man cannot live by bread alone, as the saying goes (Blogger cannot live by zombie flesh alone? Ewww…) So this post is about ecological success stories, about praising the very best work that ecology has to offer.
What are your favorite ecological success stories? The very best work you know of? (You can define “successful” or “best” however you like) They can be single favorite papers, but I’m thinking more of bigger success stories than that. Lines of research, involving many people rather than just one exceptional investigator, and leading to successes bigger than could be encompassed in any single paper.
This would be a really long post if I tried to name all of mine, so I’ll just limit myself to a few of them (just the first few that came into my head).
One of them is the development and use of modern time series analysis and model fitting approaches to identify the mechanisms driving population cycles in many systems. See this old post for links to this literature. This body of work grew out of the decades old density-dependence vs. density-independence debates, and involved a lot of collaboration between field ecologists, theoreticians, and statisticians. It involved conceptual advances (e.g., understanding of stochastic nonlinear dynamical systems), empirical advances (e.g., data compilation), and methodological advances (e.g., in computationally-intensive approaches to model fitting). It’s hugely impressive stuff, a real and permanent advance not just in our knowledge of population ecology, but in how to do it. Read some of the links in that old post, and then go back and read something like Dennis Chitty’s memoir of his career in mid-20th century population ecology. You’ll really appreciate just how far population ecology has come. Chitty’s book, published in 1996, emphasizes his, and his field’s, collective failure to explain population cycles in small mammals. But the seeds for success had been planted and indeed were already sprouting. Now, less than 20 years later, population ecologist Peter Turchin has basically declared victory and moved on to applying the same methods to human history! (With how much success remains to be seen; see here and here)
Here’s another one: field experiments on interspecific competition. Ecologists below a certain age may not realize this, but there was a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s when “do species compete?” (or perhaps, “do they compete strongly enough for it to matter?”) was a really controversial question in community ecology. In large part, the controversy was conceptual or methodological, concerning the interpretation of observational evidence. I’ve referred to this controversy as the “null model wars”. And the response to that controversy is, I think, one of community ecology’s finest hours. People went out to the field and did experiments. Specifically, a whole lot of removal experiments, in which a species is removed from some randomly-chosen plots or sites, with others left as controls, and the effects of the removal tracked. As a result, we now have a clear-cut answer to the question “do species compete?” (“Yes, mostly”) We even have quantitative meta-analyses putting numbers and confidence intervals on the answer to this question (Gurevitch et al. 1992). Now, one can always hope for a better answer–more refined, more detailed, more precise, whatever. But frankly I don’t see that we really need one, and I assume most folks would agree, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been a long time since you could get a paper in a leading journal simply by conducting a removal experiment.
One could say something similar about top-down and bottom-up effects. Ecologists went out and did lots of similar sorts of predator removal/addition and resource enrichment experiments in lots of systems, and answered the basic empirical questions they set out to ask. For instance, when you remove predators, do you get a trophic cascade? Yes, mostly (Shurin et al. 2002). Same for effects of biodiversity on ecosystem function, at least if that very broad question is narrowed down to “effects of species richness within a trophic level on the total biomass, abundance, or resource use of that trophic level” (Cardinale et al. 2006). Say what you like about the limitations of many field experiments–they’re small-scale, or short-term, or whatever. The point here is, when we ecologists collectively decide that we really want an answer some empirical question that can be answered with relatively straightforward field experiments, we’re quite good at getting an answer. We should be proud of that!
I’d name some successes to do with management, conservation, and restoration as well if I knew them, and the research underpinning them, better. For instance, there certainly are species that have been saved from likely extinction, or at least quite widespread extirpation, via management interventions based on ecological research (American alligator, for instance). Or think of the acid rain story. Is it too early to label marine reserves a success story for marine conservation and fisheries management?
The point of this post isn’t to suggest some overall conclusion about how “successful” or “unsuccessful” ecology as a whole is. I have no idea how to quantify that in any meaningful way, and I don’t see much point in trying. All we can do is keep doing the best science we can, and keep raising the bar so that our best gets better over time. That means recognizing our failures–but it also means celebrating our successes. So tell us: what are your favorite success stories in ecological research?