Ask us anything: what theories should a beginning ecology student read up on, and how?

The next question in our annual ask us anything series comes from reader Moy:

As a student beginning to understand ecology, could you tell me some important theories that I should read. Or a book that has complied them.

Jeremy’s answer:

I think the answer to this depends on whether you’re a beginning undergraduate student, or a beginning graduate student. For a beginning undergraduate, my boringly predictable answer is that you should read an undergraduate ecology textbook. I’m not super-familiar with current intro ecology textbooks since I don’t teach intro ecology myself. So I’m afraid I don’t have any strong recommendations. Any current intro textbook should be basically fine in terms of giving you an overview of the field, including major theoretical ideas. Back in my day (which was waaaay back…), Ricklefs and Begon-Harper-Townsend (as they were then known) were the undergrad ecology textbooks with the strongest coverage of theory. Though for good coverage of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, you might want Molles & Cahill or Eichhorn. 😉

If you want an intro theory textbook, I do have a strong recommendation: Case’s Illustrated Guide to Theoretical Ecology. Yes, it’s 20 years old now, but the basics of theoretical ecology haven’t changed, and I love Case’s illustration-heavy pedagogical approach. There’s no other intro theory textbook like it. Otto & Day is great too, but more advanced, with coverage of evolution as well as ecology, and more focused on teaching you to be a modeler rather than helping you understand models others have produced. Otto & Day is the book I’d probably recommend as a follow-up to Case, if a student wanted to learn to do their own modeling, though there are other good choices out there.

For a beginning graduate student, if there’s a graduate-level textbook in your subfield, that’s a good place to start. For my own subfield of community ecology, I’d recommend either Morin or Mittelbach (now Mittelbach & McGill). Here are my reviews of the second edition of Morin alongside the first edition of Mittelbach. Narrowing a bit further, if you’re into those bits of community ecology that focus on species diversity and abundance within trophic levels (as opposed to on, say, food webs), Vellend is a very good roadmap of the theoretical and empirical literature. Here’s my review.

If as a graduate student you want a historical overview of foundational ideas in ecology and how they’ve developed over time, I recommend Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers With Commentaries. Yes it’s from the early ’90s, and yes, all the papers it covers are many decades old. But it does what it says on the tin, as the British say. I think it’s good for graduate students to have some passing familiarity with the history of their field, even if that history isn’t relevant for their day-to-day work. And I think it’s useful to be able to spot connections between current ideas and past ideas. Old wine in new bottles and all that. For instance, I was skeptical from the get-go of a certain once-trendy approach in phylogenetic community ecology (and I wasn’t alone in that). I was skeptical because I could see the close connections between that approach, and previous approaches that hadn’t panned out.* Finally, some classic papers are primarily of historical interest, but there are others that still reward repeated reading even today. Meghan has a post on this.

*I’m not implying here that proponents of that phylogenetic approach were ignorant of the history of ecology! And I’m not criticizing them for proposing an idea that didn’t pan out. Ideas that don’t pan out, and professional disagreements about which ideas will pan out, are normal parts of science. I’m just saying “here’s a time when I made a professional scientific judgment by drawing on my knowledge of the history of the field.”

Brian’s answer:

It’s a little hard to tell what level you are aiming at, but I am going to assume get a good undergraduate textbook is not the answer you are looking for (if it were I would recommend Molles or Relyea and Ricklefs). I’m assuming you are asking more at the graduate/professional level. The books I am going to recommend are my favorites for a combination of breadth of topics and good pedagogic writing.  I would definitely second Jeremy’s recommendation for Case‘s book on theoretical ecology if you really want to dig into the math per se. Otto and Day’s book on A Biologist’s Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution is also excellent and slightly more math-advanced than Case. If you want a more conceptual introduction (with some math) I am not going to disagree with Jeremy’s recommendation of the Mittelbach & McGill’s Community Ecology, 2nd edition 🙂 . If you want an ecosystem-y view, the textbook by Chapin et al on Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology is quite good. If you’re interested in large-scale questions and questions of biodiversity, I would still vote for Rosenzweig’s book on Species Diversity in Space and Time (1995) or Magurran’s Measuring Biological Diversity. If you want an animal physiology book I would vote for The Physiological Ecology of Vertebrates: A View from Energetics by Brian McNab (it’s not the classic textbook overview and mostly just covers birds and mammals, but I find it very compelling, especially in its efforts to link to larger ecological questions). Metabolic Ecology: A Scaling Approach by Sibly, Brown and Kodric-Brown is in the same spirit (but an edited volume that covers all taxa including plant, insects and bacteria). Not sure I have a great recommendation for plant physiology – although Plant Functional Diversity by Garnier et al is a somewhat outside of the box introduction on that topic (but a very straight up introduction on the topic of plant functional traits) and a quick read. For evolutionary ecology I would recommend Bulmer’s Theoretical Evolutionary Ecology. The 1986 book Community Ecology by Case and Diamond should not be ignored – it is obviously dated but it captured a very special moment in the evolution of the field by the top names in the field (it is an edited volume). I still go back and read chapters out of that book frequently for inspiration.


3 thoughts on “Ask us anything: what theories should a beginning ecology student read up on, and how?

  1. I do not know if this counts as theoretical ecology but it certainly has links to it ….”Εcology. The experimental analysis of distribution and abundance” by Charles Krebs. I have been in the fan club for years and years……

    I have not read Mittelbach & McGill’s Community Ecology, though! I think AMAZON does not mail it to my country….

  2. Interesting to note upon rereading the question it asked about theories, but I discussed books. I guess that is because in my mind there is not a short list of theories for an ecology student. There are dozens. So only a book length treatment, maybe targeted towards a topic area, is going to provide adequate coverage.

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