Ask us anything: how will ecology change (or not) over the next 50 years?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Eric Charnov asks: Which of the concepts/methods/questions/approaches/theories ecologists currently talk about will still be part of the discipline in 50 yrs?

Jeremy’s answer:

Is it cheating for me to just link back to this old post of Brian’s?

If it is cheating, then here are my mostly-boring and obvious predictions. All of which simply assume that current trends will continue. But at no extra charge, I threw in some predictions that aren’t about concepts/methods/questions/approaches/theories. šŸ™‚

  • Ecology will continue to become more of an applied field, continuing to focus more and more on description and forecasting of global change and responses to global change.
  • Ecologists will continue to seek generality primarily through meta-analysis and other empirical comparative methods rather than via theoretical/conceptual routes. That is, roads to generality #1 and #6 on my list will remain the most prominent.
  • The theoretical work that does become prominent and influential will be based on computational approaches rather than analytically-tractable models, and will concern problems/questions with close connections to applied issues. For instance, ecology and evolution of range limits and range shifts along environmental gradients.
  • The increasing availability and decreasing expense of remotely-sensed data and tracking of individual animals will increasingly shape the sorts of questions ecologists ask and how they go about answering them.
  • Ecological research coming out of Asia, especially China, will continue to grow in importance.
  • The percentage of women among academic ecology faculty in N. America will continue to grow steadily, until stabilizing around 59% women in 20-40 years.
  • The IDH will no longer be included in ecology textbooks.
  • Mistaken or confused ideas about “limiting similarity” will continue to plague ecologists’ collective thinking forever.

Brian’s answer:

Like Jeremy, my first instinct is to point to my previous 100th anniversary of ESA post. But lets see if I can add to that.

My predictions:

  • New all over again – Ecology (like all sciences) has as much spiral as trendline. So I predict now underappreciated fields like optimal foraging and succession will be rediscovered. I’m curious what other fields people think will be rediscovered.
  • Temporal ecology – The 1980s-2010s have been all about adding space to ecology in a deep way. Metapopulations and communities, environmental gradients, landscape ecology, etc were all part of this. Coming decades will see an equal emphasis on time. We will move well beyond simplistic differential equation equilibrial models to studies that embrace whole time series and exogenous forcing. How often do black swans happen and do they cause abrupt or gradual changes in communities. What kind of communities are more prone to abrupt or gradual change? Can we compare the strength of current exogenous forcing (aka the Anthropogenic change) with pre-human exogenous forcing (e.g. natural climate change) And etc.
  • Spatial temporal change – Closely paralleling the last point, in an applied world, it seems to me that if you wear a macroecological lens (i.e. many species rather than single species of concern) we don’t so much face a biodiversity loss crisis as a biodiversity reshuffling crisis. How can quantify and compare spatial and temporal turnover in composition? What causes these? How have these accelerated (if they have)? What management practices address these?
  • Traits – There will be a well established theory of traits that is built on a multidimensional interaction between traits and environment. The genotype-phenotype program will not fulfill the promise of its name, but will add to our understanding of traits.
  • Latitudinal gradient of diversity – better described as why does species richness vary around the globe – will finally see a cohesive first order theory that explains a non-trivial fraction of the variability.
  • Niche theory will continue to remain a realm of muddy thinking – not because we couldn’t make it precise, but because sociologically this has become our parking garage where we park our concepts we can’t make more precise, and that’s OK, we probably need such a place.
  • Methodology – Remote sensing, automated image processing and barcoding/eDNA will fundamentally change the data we collect. This will be very beneficial to the filed, although all of these changes will be overhyped and experience the bandwagon phenomenon. Statistics will continue to get more and more complicated, and the only benefit will be allowing us to extract ever smaller signals out of noisy data which is of dubious benefit, all while statistics becomes so complicated and specialized that we no longer have any idea what are best practices and ultimately until nobody is qualified to review or judge anybody else’s papers because every statistical method will be a one-off.
  • Sociology of doing science – Collaborative science will only continue to increase in frequency and importance. We will continue to see slow but real progress in leveling the playing field for women and I hope we will start to see detectable progress for other minority groups. Ecology will see more “big instrument” efforts (like NEON).
  • Publishing – Peer review will still be important. Journals will likely still exist. Beyond that, no clue. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. it will look totally different in terms of who owns journals (and they may not exist), who pays to publish, etc. But I don’t know how. I would be willing to shorten my time frame for this prediction to 20 years. China, Latin America and Africa will all increase in importance and proportion of contribution relative to North America and Europe.
  • Scientific method – I will still be trying, unsuccessfully, to convince ecologists that reductionism, differential equations, and experimentation are only a small subset of the good ways to do science and that we are limiting ourselves. Field work and field collection of new data will remain the dominant modality of doing ecology, despite worries to the contrary.

16 thoughts on “Ask us anything: how will ecology change (or not) over the next 50 years?

  1. Surprising that both Brian and Jeremy give so little shrift to the continuing impact of physiological ecology on our understanding of patterns in the distribution of species and trends in community composition, structure, and diversity ā€“ as well as ecosystem dynamics. I regard this area as foundational to ecology and to many future advances in the field.

  2. I think that the next 50 years will see the creation of a new profession–Environmental Physicians. It will benefit from the support of may disciplines, but Ecology will be central to its scientific foundation.

    This is less about the how or what than the why of Ecology. I think the influence will be as significant as medicine has been for biology in the past 100 years.

  3. I don’t get many opportunities to attend international conferences so when I do it is always very interesting to see studies or themes that signal future trends. After attending this year’s International Ornithological Congress, it really became apparent Jeremy’s fourth point about tracking individuals. Soon, we’ll have thousands of individuals – at least birds – outfitted with nanotags that collect data way beyond just their position; sensors will be collecting real-time data on the micro (nano?) environment individuals are experiencing as they fly. It wouldn’t surprise me if soon we’ll have the same sensors collecting physiological information on the birds. (It also wouldn’t surprise me if the military is far ahead of civilian science on this technology). Of course, the trend will continue that we won’t really know what to do with all the data beyond correlating several choice environmental variables with an individual or community level response followed by some kind of variable selection routine.

    Perhaps, as Brian says, there may be a resurgence in research on succession but that would be for temperate regions. Based on my experiences in the tropics, it seems that the topic of succession has never gone away. In fact, after attending the Association of Tropical Biodiversity and Conservation conference a couple of years back, I felt that it should be renamed the Conference on Tropical Forest Succession. However, it wasn’t always clear what new insights were being gained by the numerous succession studies, though that could reflect my naivete with the subject. Hence I’m curious what a new forest succession body of knowledge would look like.

    Finally, I agree with both Brian’s statements about greater interest in spatiotemporal variation and greater use of complicated statistics. However, I would say the two are related. One challenge I’m constantly trying to overcome is how to model spatiotemporal variation without resorting to complicated statistics. If we want to make real inroads in simultaneously extracting spatial and temporal patterns then I don’t see a way around complicated statistics. Can it be done without Bayesian hierarchical models? (Hopefully in this case the complicated statistics are useful as opposed to just extracting diminishing amounts of signal as Brian says).

  4. I had not read Brian’s 2014 post, which is very good; except that the historical sources for EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGY is much richer than GE Hutchinson…. think GCWilliams David Lack, Bill Hamilton, Maynard Smith, RA Fisher, others.
    I find all the suggestions made above worth thinking about, sort of a laundry list.
    But I disagree with Jeremy as to the importance of various paths to generality in ecology.
    He says here, with appropriate link.
    “Ecologists will continue to seek generality primarily through meta-analysis and other empirical comparative methods rather than via theoretical/conceptual routes. That is, roads to generality #1 and #6 on my list will remain the most prominent”.
    Obiviously we will have/generate comparative data sets, and will sort them in many ways. We will also conduct many experiments, when temporal/spatial scale allows such manipulation.
    These will help, particularly comparative data sets. My own experience with comparative data is that we NEED theoretical/ conceptual routs to really make sense of the patterns that will emerge [ hopefully] from our meta-analysis. Just looking for patterns in data will produce very weak laws. And the data to be compared are actually determined by the theory; without good theory the data will be very blurry , at best. The comparative data available for life histories , for example, is pretty coarse: very hard to get good mortality data, and we need it . period.

    Perhaps the greatest advance in thinking about phenotypic evolution in the last 50 years is the ESS revolution in behavioral ecology, a conceptual idea; perhaps in the future main stream ecologists will be taught it. Again. Heck, maybe they will even learn sex ratio [ sex allocation] theory, the type specimen for ESS theories.


  5. These were the first applications of game theory to plant ecology and evolution; have implications for determinants of plant rarity as well.

    • Hi Tom; Your early [ ca 1980] papers using game theory for plant form and function are indeed classic[ and well cited], as well as your work on plant breeding systems. I well remember those exciting early days!
      Game theory, aka ESS theory, has been the basis for much quite influential work in plant reproductive systems since the mid 1970s; a good summary of these [ and many more recent papers] is in deJong and Klinkhamer ,2005, EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGY OF PLANT REPRODUCTIVE STRATEGIES.333pgs, Cambridge U press.

      • Ah, you’re right Eric ā€“ I’d forgotten the earlier work on plant reproductive systems, while fixating on the leaf-height model as the first ESS for gross aspects of plant form and resource competition! Hope you are well!!

      • It will amuse you that in a keynote talk at a big scientific meeting, ca1980 ,maynard smith discussed both alternative male life histories [ Gross’s work on bluegill sunfish] and leaf form/display… he pointed out the need for ESS methods for the latter, and if I recall correctly mentioned your work on this.

  6. Pingback: Scanning the Horizon of Ecological Research: A graduate student initiative – Rapid Ecology

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