Recently, we opened the floor so you could ask us anything. In the next few posts we’ll be answering!
I’ve paraphrased the questions for brevity; you can see the originals in the comments on the post linked above.
In passing, let me say that, if you find Brian’s answers way more insightful and useful than mine, well, so do I! And not only are Brian’s answers better than mine, he writes them faster. Maybe next time we should just let you ask Brian anything. 🙂
1. Is ecological theory being applied to solve practical problems? If not, why not, and is it even important that it be so applied? (Jim Bouldin)
Brian: Well there is ecological theory as it is and then there is theory as it should be. At its worst ecological theory could be cartooned as developing ever subtler effects that need ever larger datasets just to detect them. I also don’t think topics near and dear to theoreticians like coexistence, population cycles, neutral theory, etc have necessarily had much impact in on-the-ground conservation (and not clear to me that they ever will/should, but that doesn’t mean the topics aren’t worth pursuing for other reasons). On the other hand, perhaps the single largest push of theoeretical ecology last 20-30 years has been spatial, ranging from the Theory of Island Biogeography up to Metapopulations and Metacommunities (and landscape ecology). I think this has had a major influence in conservation (reserve design, corridors, metapopulation based population viability analysis, and etc), and though I’m sure conservationists would have got some of this without theory, I think theory undoubtedly accelerated and improved the process. If theoreticians ever wanted to turn their attention away from the almighty population paradigm, they could make a real contribution to climate change and global change ecology which has gone from historical, empirical patterns to correlational models with barely a hint of theory.
Jeremy: Not doing any applied work myself, I’m not a great person to answer this question, but I’ll give it a go. In addition to the examples Brian cited, I’d note that the IUCN Red List criteria for identifying species at risk of extinction are based in part on results from theoretical stochastic population models by Russ Lande and others. And those criteria in turn provide much of the basis for (for instance) the Canadian Species At Risk Act, the Canadian equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in the US. As another example, it’s my impression that theoretical modeling has contributed a lot to the general argument for marine reserves, and also helped a lot in their design. And I’m sure there numerous other examples where models tailored to specific systems (specific populations, species, or ecosystems) have informed management decisions about those systems. Now, like Brian said, there’s all sorts of theory out there, developed for all sorts of different purposes. I’m sure modern coexistence theory, or neutral theory, or MaxEnt, or etc. haven’t done squat to solve practical problems–but that’s totally not the purpose of that sort of theory.