Poll: which classic ecological topics do ecologists still care about? (UPDATE: poll now closed)

The research foci of ecology (or any scientific field) change over time. Some questions get answered, and so everyone stops working on them. New questions get asked. Some research approaches turn out to be flawed, and so everyone (hopefully!) stops using them. New techniques get adopted. Or maybe everyone just gets bored with studying or arguing about the same old stuff and decides to go do something else.

Those changes often are contested. For instance, expert ecologists often disagree on whether the leading questions of the day have been answered, or else agree that they’ve been answered but disagree on what the answers are! “Revisiting a classic longstanding question” is hard to distinguish from “beating a dead horse.” One person’s bold hypothesis is another person’s vague arm-waving. What looks like the next big thing to one ecologist can look like a trendy bandwagon to another. A result that one ecologist sees as raising important new questions can look trivial to another. Etc.

These changes also aren’t easy to measure. For instance, just because lots of papers continue to cite a classic idea doesn’t mean that idea is still a live topic of ecological research. So citation analyses only provide a crude and error-prone window into what topics ecologists care about these days.

So, my solution is just to ask y’all what classic ecological topics you still care about! 🙂 Below the fold is a fun poll. For each of a number of classic fundamental ecological topics (plus a few contemporary and applied topics, for comparison), you’re asked two questions. How much do you personally care about the topic? And how much do you think ecologists collectively should care about the topic? They’re all multiple choice questions, so the poll should be quick to complete.

A few preliminary remarks:

I’m reluctant to define “care” too precisely. A topic you care a lot about is one that you, well, care a lot about, whether or not you work on it yourself. A topic you think ecologists collectively should care a lot about is a topic you think ecologists should devote a lot of research effort towards, should probably teach to students, etc. Conversely, a topic you think ecologists shouldn’t care about is one that you think nobody should research any more, maybe shouldn’t teach to students, etc.

Note that your own personal level of care about the topic might or might not match how much you think other ecologists should care.

Please skip any topic that you’ve never heard of.

As always, this poll isn’t a rigorous random sample from any well-defined population. It’s intended as a fun conversation starter. Looking forward to your responses! 🙂

19 thoughts on “Poll: which classic ecological topics do ecologists still care about? (UPDATE: poll now closed)

  1. I’m especially keen about fairly classical things (some of which you don’t have listed, unless they fall under one of these and I’m not as familiar with the contemporary definitions). Specifically, population synchronization and the paradox of enrichment. I suppose both are broadly related to population cycles, or some kinds of metapopulation models, but I’m curious if these things are still of contemporary interest (I assume so for the former but not as much for the latter).

    • Yeah, I didn’t list spatial synchrony. I personally am very interested in it, but I thought it was too specialized a topic to be worth listing in a poll like this.

      Paradox of enrichment would’ve been a good one! I just forgot it.

      • Nope; there is no way one can discuss r/k selection without deep reference to age structured life history evolution; with and without density dependence.

      • Why do you have to discuss r/K selection at all? Why not just teach and research life history evolution using the modern theoretical framework? Isn’t r/K selection just a now-outdated “first draft” of the modern framework?

      • Jeremy; Yes, it would be nice to avoid the mention of r/k selection altogether … but one can’t since its mentioned all over the literature and in all the basic ecology texts. And thus your students have already heard of it, and usually in the context that big bodied spp are k selected, etc.. So my experience says that one must carefully examine its premises and predictions?? , and then introduce the alternatives. And the predicted life histories sometimes do depend on the distinction between selection in density dependent vs independent pops.

      • There’s probably a post to be written on when as an instructor you can (or should) just ignore some outdated-but-still-prevalent idea. Versus when you can (or should) teach about it because students will hear about it from other sources anyway.

      • I’d be curious to know whether folks are still interested in the paradox of enrichment. Specifically the degree to which ecologists think it has been resolved, and by which mechanism(s).

  2. I may have done this wrong, but I re-interpreted many ideas as being specific cases of broader themes I think are important. Eg I see Clementian/Gleasonian communities and Island Biogeography as both informing when ecological interactions versus ecological drift are important. So on the one hand I would like studies to use the latter (more modern/synthetic) framework, but on the other I’m hesitant to say we shouldn’t care much about these valuable, if more specific, cases. Similarly, I don’t think it’s useful to liberally term community configurations as “alternative stable states” without necessary evidence, but it is important to always keep in mind positive feedbacks and how they shape communities (disclaimer – it is my thesis topic).

    That said I did rate some as “0” because they feel too exclusive generate more arguments than synthesis. But I’m afraid that might be more indicative of my background than the ideas themselves.

    • I suspect that “this idea is a version of some broader and obviously-important idea” is a common reason for respondents to say they care about these ideas. Whether it’s a *good* reason is debatable, as my exchange of comments with Eric Charnov illustrates.

      I can feel a post coming on about when to teach the historical antecedants of modern ecological ideas. I bet it would be a controversial post!

      • I feel this is definitely a lacking area, with the explosion of publications. If technically possible, could nice to poll which ideas ecologists think of being antecedents to modern ideas.
        Relatedly, Alan Hastings is recruiting authors to write up how ideas from classical papers have propagated through the literature to modern day, with 1st one coming out in early 2019 in Theoretical Ecology.

      • I would think a class on the history and development of ecological theory would be great. Textbooks and courses (in my experience) do cover much of the material in an oblique way, but certainly not systematically. As a result, there are some big holes in my knowledge that I only find out about through chance. If there is not a book (there has to be, yes?), what a great topic.

  3. Interesting poll – I think the interdependency of several of these topics made it a bit hard to evaluate their importance. So it was hard not to read into some of these topics and “guess” at some broader importance.

    For example, three topics related diversity to some ecosystem outcome (stability, productivity, function), I think all three have some importance but what about just broader diversity and ecological portfolio outcomes (variance v. mean production)? I think applied ecologists should be very interested in the role of diversity in driving variance/production patterns as it drives at some of the core foundations for (mis)designing conservation and species management plans.

    I find rK selection to be outdated, but I also consider rK to be a precursor to life history theory, which is very important. I think of island biogeography as an early case of landscape ecology and metapopulation spatial structure (both of which are very interesting to me), but I’m not interested in predicting literal island dynamics alone. Furthermore, it seems like some applications of island biogeography relates directly to the SLOSS debate?

  4. Pingback: Poll results: Which classic topics do ecologists care about? And which ones do they think ecologists collectively should care about? | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: What shape is the long trajectory of ecology? | Dynamic Ecology

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