Best examples of ecological theory “anticipating” future data?

Question: what are the best examples of ecological theory “anticipating” future data? Or being “preadapted” to future data?

By that I mean, what are the best examples of ecological theory that was mostly or entirely disconnected from data at the time it was developed, and that didn’t immediately inspire any empirical tests of its predictions, but that turned out to aid interpretation of subsequent data? Examples of ecological theory that, at the time is was developed, seemed to be of purely mathematical interest, or like a solution in search of a problem. But then later, an empirical problem came along to which that theory just so happened to provide a pre-existing solution.

If the possibility I’m asking about seems far-fetched, well, I assure you it’s not. There are actually-existing examples from other fields, on which I hope we’ll have a future post. But for now, let’s all try to think of ecological examples. Looking forward to your comments.

p.s. I look forward to this post getting approximately minus-7 pageviews. 🙂 It’s the sort of niche, non-newsy topic that never draws much interest. Plus, you know, COVID-19. But that’s ok, because (i) we don’t set out to chase traffic, and (ii) Meghan’s advice for grad students and mentors during the COVID-19 outbreak just drew two typical weeks worth of pageviews for us in 24 hours. I feel like we’ve been doing our bit lately in terms of writing useful, timely stuff than people want to read. So I’m fine with indulging myself by posting something that nobody wants to read. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Best examples of ecological theory “anticipating” future data?

  1. Jeremy are you expecting many examples? If I understand your question right, I can’t think of any. It is not how ecologists do business. i think it sort of points to the difference in how fields do business (e.g. physics vs ecology). So I’ll be curious if it is just that I don’t know about ecological examples.

    • I’m not expecting many examples. But I know of an example from evolution. So I figure there might be at least one example from ecology. Though I can’t think of any ecological examples just now.

  2. What about an example from The Selfish Gene. The theory of evolutionary stable states and the data on digger wasps. Sorry I can’t be more specific as I don’t have a copy of the book with me but perhaps someone can fill in the details.

    • Hmm. Successful tests of game theory aren’t the sort of case I was thinking of. From the very start, game theory in evolutionary biology was motivated by previously-known biology. And then once game theory was developed, people set out to test it. Maybe I’m getting the history very wrong here. But from what I know, I don’t think game theory in evolutionary biology ever went through a stage where it was seen as a purely-mathematical curiosity, only for everyone to be surprised when it turned out to actually explain real-world animal behavior.

      • From Dawkins (or Hamilton before), the green-beard effect seems like an example, if a controversial one. If I understand right, it was posited as a theoretical possibility well before any real examples were described.

  3. I am tempted to throw this in the midst:
    Watson & Crick did mention that how DNA could replicate might be figured out from their proposed double helix structure.
    The last line of their doublehelix paper has famous understatement … “It has not escaped our notice …”

      • Yeah, I thought so too.
        So, I won’t bring up Darwin’s “tangled bank” … and all of what became community ecology and modern coexistence theory.
        Oops, I think I just did! 🙂

  4. So the first empirical test of modern coexistence theory came 15 years after Chesson developed the theory. But I don’t think he was predicting the type of data needed at all. In fact, I’d almost say it was the opposite. The idea was so powerful and important, folks, despite complications, worked out ways to tweak the theory/mathematics so it could finally be testable given what scientists can measure in the field. Do you think I have that right?

  5. I know there are still arguments about whether or not chaotic density-dependent populations exist (perhaps except in beetles?) but would this kind of prediction, which I think first appeared in the early 80s, fit your expectations?

    • Hmm. Good question. [thinks…] I feel like predictions of chaotic population dynamics did motivate researchers to go out and look for chaotic dynamics, both in the lab and in the field. Turned out to be pretty much intractable in the field, so most everybody gave up on looking out in the field. Several good examples from the lab, of which Constantino & Desharnais’ flour beetles is probably the best example.

      So on reflection, I’d say that no, chaotic population dynamics isn’t a good example of the sort of case I’m thinking of in the post. But there might be room for argument on that.

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