No more ecology

9 05 2012

To all ecology people who read this blog (students, post-docs, academics), this is an intriguing, provocative and slightly worrying title. As ecology has matured into a full-fledged, hard-core, mathematical science on par with physics, chemistry and genetics (and is arguably today one of the most important sciences given how badly we’ve trashed our own home), its sophistication now threatens to render many of the traditional aspects of ecology redundant.

Let me explain.

As a person who cut his teeth in field ecology (with all the associated dirt, dangers, bites, stings, discomfort, thrills, headaches and disasters), I’ve had my fair share of fun and excitement collecting ecological data. There’s something quaintly Victorian (no, I am not referring to the state next door) about the romantic and obsessive naturalist collecting data to the exclusion of nearly all other aspects of civilised life; the intrepid adventurer in some of us takes over (likely influenced by the likes of David Attenborough) and we convince ourselves that our quest for the lonely datum will heal all of the Earth’s ailments.

Bollocks.

As I’ve matured in ecology and embraced its mathematical complexity and beauty, the recurring dilemma is that there are never enough data to answer the really big questions. We have sampled only a fraction of extant species, we know embarrassingly little about how ecosystems respond to disturbance, and we know next to nothing about the complexities of ecosystem services. And let’s not forget our infancy in understanding the synergies of extinctions in the past and projections into the future. Multiply this uncertainty by several orders of magnitude for ocean ecosystems.

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How to predict marine biodiversity

26 07 2011

One of the most important components of conservation ecology is arguably the focus on robust methods to predict ‘biodiversity’. This covers everything from detection issues (whether or not a species is in a particular area), species distribution models (to predict where a species should be given habitat and/or physical attributes), climate change predictions, to reserve design algorithms (to assess whether we are protecting what we think we are protecting).

It might seem a bit strange to the uninitiated that we have to spend so much time trying to figure out what’s there. Surely, one just goes to the area of interest and does a few quick surveys? Wouldn’t that be lovely; the truth is that most species are, in fact, rare, and the massive areas we must usually survey tend to preclude complete coverage. This is why experimental design and statistical techniques are so advanced in our discipline – to account for the probability of missing what’s actually there, and to estimate what should be in areas we haven’t even looked in.

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