Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World

Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World

by Rafe Sagarin, Anibal Pauchard

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The need to understand and address large-scale environmental problems that are difficult to study in controlled environments—issues ranging from climate change to overfishing to invasive species—is driving the field of ecology in new and important directions. Observation and Ecology documents that transformation, exploring how scientists and


The need to understand and address large-scale environmental problems that are difficult to study in controlled environments—issues ranging from climate change to overfishing to invasive species—is driving the field of ecology in new and important directions. Observation and Ecology documents that transformation, exploring how scientists and researchers are expanding their methodological toolbox to incorporate an array of new and reexamined observational approaches—from traditional ecological knowledge to animal-borne sensors to genomic and remote-sensing technologies—to track, study, and understand current environmental problems and their implications.
The authors paint a clear picture of what observational approaches to ecology are and where they fit in the context of ecological science. They consider the full range of observational abilities we have available to us and explore the challenges and practical difficulties of using a primarily observational approach to achieve scientific understanding. They also show how observations can be a bridge from ecological science to education, environmental policy, and resource management. 

Observations in ecology can play a key role in understanding our changing planet and the consequences of human activities on ecological processes. This book will serve as an important resource for future scientists and conservation leaders who are seeking a more holistic and applicable approach to ecological science.

Editorial Reviews

Professor, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University - Fiorenza Micheli

"An inspiring, thought-provoking, critically needed treatment of how to use our power of observation to expand ecological knowledge and contribute practical environmental solutions. Observation and Ecology presents and develops a bold holistic approach to ecological research, realized through our human ability to integrate diverse signals and patterns. A must read for current and future ecologists."
Director, Centre for Invasion Biology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa - David M. Richardson

"Observation and Ecology is a timely, superbly written, and highly innovative manifesto on the importance of clever observations for solving fundamental problems in ecology and environmental management. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the complex workings of ecosystems in our human-dominated world."
Professor Emeritus, Unity College - Mitchell Thomashow

"Observational ecology demonstrates how and why direct sensory awareness of the natural world is a bridge to deeper ecological understanding. This is a groundbreaking work for teachers, scientists, policymakers, and citizens. It empowers the reader to blend disciplined observation with rigorous science. It explains why hands-on field immersion is the key to understanding and internalizing global environmental change. This is a brilliant handbook and rationale for anyone who wants to make ecological learning accessible."
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries - F.N. Egerton
"Sagarin (Univ. of Arizona) and Pauchard (Univ. of Concepcion, Chile) view the history of ecology as moving from observational science during the later 1800s to experimental and theoretial science during the 1900s to revived observations during the 2000s but without replacing experiments and theory. Their book is a guide for this new ecology, defending it against detractors and explaining with sophistication how to proceed."
Conservation Biology

"There is much in this volume that field-oriented conservationists will be heartened by, but just as much that will stimulate serious self-inquiry about the practice of science in the field."
Basic and Applied Ecology

"Rafe Sagarin and Anibal Paichard have written an engaging manifesto for a renaissance of field research in ecology ... inspiring reading"
Wildlife Activist

"This review scratches the surface of (and heartily endorses) the case the authors make for observation to become prominent again in ecology."
Biological Conservation

"This book succinctly, and with great enthusiasm, makes the case for observational research in ecology ... If you are already a multidisciplinary or observation-based ecologist, this book will legitimize your work. If not, it should give you some reasons to expand your outlook and encourage you to accept observation-based research as 'real' science."
Ecological Restoration

"This book should motivate restoration ecologists..."

"...[F]ull of enthusiasm and passion for the power of observations to explain, inform, and educate....They take on a number of sacred cows, and gore them, so this will be a thought-provoking and much-discussed book."
Quarterly Review in Biology

"reaches high"

"Sagarin (Univ. of Arizona) and Pauchard (Univ. of Concepcion, Chile) view the history of ecology as moving from observational science during the later 1800s to experimental and theoretial science during the 1900s to revived observations during the 2000s but without replacing experiments and theory. Their book is a guide for this new ecology, defending it against detractors and explaining with sophistication how to proceed."

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Observation and Ecology

Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World

By Rafe Sagarin, Anibal Pauchard


Copyright © 2012 Rafe Sagarin and Aníbal Pauchard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-230-3


An Observational Approach to Ecology

To understand how ecology will serve us in this era age of rapid environmental change, we need to understand that ecology is not a static discipline. It is continuously adapting to the changing world that ecologists find themselves living and working within. This chapter is about the most recent adaptation in ecology, which can be seen in both an increased use and increased diversity of observational approaches to understanding ecological phenomena. This adaptation, like stepwise adaptations in nature, hasn't created an entirely new and unrecognizable entity, but rather has grown recursively from the past state of ecology. Accordingly, we first discuss what ecology was for much of its existence and then we explore how the urgency of environmental change and the opportunity to study that change in unprecedented ways is providing a pathway for adaptation of the science of ecology.

Ecology as an Experimental Science

One of the prominent characteristics of the ecology since the mid-twentieth century has been the importance of experimental methods. This itself was an evolution from previous ecological methods. During this time, ecology left behind its exploratory stage and progressed through stepwise advances by means of cleverly designed and carefully controlled planned experiments at relatively small scales in order to isolate the mechanisms underlying various ecological phenomena. This is an attractive way to do science. By setting up experiments that tweak just a small number of variables and strict controls, one can often determine with some certainty that a particular causal factor leads to a particular ecological change. For example, an experiment to look at the effects of predation would be set up by erecting barriers around a plot to keep predators out, and the control would be plots where predators roam freely, and there may also be controls on the experimental equipment such as partial barriers that let predators in while allowing the researcher to determine whether the experimental equipment itself might have affected outcomes through shading or the disturbance of installing the equipment.

The manipulative experimental approach is also amenable to replication, provided there is enough space to place multiple copies of the experimental and control plots. This gives a researcher confidence that she can test a hypothesis—that is, a testable supposition, such as, "diversity of species in this grassland is maintained by herbivory on species x, which would otherwise overgrow all the other species"—about an ecological phenomenon. If the system is amenable to experimental treatment, a good experimental ecologist will probably be able to conceive of not just one, but multiple alternative hypotheses to test. Testing multiple alternative hypotheses that could be serially rejected was the aspiration of John Platt's hugely influential "Strong Inference" (Platt 1964) approach to ecology. In the early 1960s, Platt argued that ecology as a science would forever remain a second-tier endeavor relative to apparently nobler scientific pursuits like chemistry, physics, and molecular biology, until it got its act together and developed a more rigorous framework.

It is easy to see why this experimental approach has been so widely adopted by ecologists. With a manipulative experiment, you know you are going to get a result, or you know the steps you need to take to get a result. Well, at least you are more likely than not to get a result—in reality many experiments go awry because of unexpected forces of nature (maybe strong El Niño storms that rip all your experimental plots off the intertidal rocks where the plots were painstakingly installed). And while experimental work is rarely easy—our colleagues have spent countless hours scuba diving in frigid Alaskan waters, trekking up South Pacific highlands in 99 percent humidity, and mucking about in malarial swamps to deploy, check, repair, and reap data from their experimental setups—it is fairly tractable. That is, it is very likely that someone could conceive of, plan, deploy, analyze, and write about a good experiment within the duration of an extended field course or a graduate-school career. And most important, these features make experimental work inherently fundable, because the experiment has a specific purpose, clear methodological stages, and a relatively constrained set of possible outcomes—very little is left to chance. Once the experiment has been conceived, it is fairly straightforward to explain to a funding agency like the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the experiment will perform as promised, that it will deliver a particular set of data, and that it will answer a particular set of ecological questions.

Manipulative experiments and strong inference have long been important in ecology. They have been used to tackle questions across the spectrum of ecological inquiry—from what controls the dynamics of an ecological community, to why does that animal behave in such an odd way, to how does a limpet navigate its way home to the same spot after every high tide? At the same time, it is easy to see why we as ecologists have been forced to expand outward from this niche. Manipulated experiments can only do so much. And it happens that where they fall short is exactly in the place where we now desperately need more ecological understanding. The scale and the dynamics of many observed ecological phenomena have leapt beyond the scales of time and space that are readily controlled in experiments. In particular, the really big environmental problems we face today—global climate change, collapsing biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrification of huge water bodies, and the widespread emergence of invasive species and new infectious diseases, to name a few—are all very difficult to study by manipulating variables and repeating cleverly designed experiments.

You can certainly put some marine creatures into a beaker of seawater, drop the pH a few points and see if they can still form calcified shells, and that is important knowledge. But it's going to tell you precious little about the fate of those same creatures spread out across an entire ocean basin that is acidifying due to carbon deposition in some places but not others as the organisms navigate its swirling eddies and trash gyres, experience countless ecological interactions, and evolve with the constantly changing conditions. In other words, both the scale and the dynamics of small laboratory and field experiments often bear little resemblance to what is going on in the larger world. And then, even if we could get the funding and could work out the logistics of experimentally testing and controlling for all these complex dynamics at the scales at which they work, would it be ethical to do so? It doesn't seem to make sense, if we are worried about the potentially catastrophic effects of large-scale environmental change like ocean acidification, to replicate these changes on a grand experimental scale.

There is also an urgency to the environmental problems we are facing that places an enormous burden on ecological studies. In order to be truly useful for both identifying and potentially solving these problems, we need information quickly (as in now), we need it to tell us about what is going on across large spatial scales, and we need it to tell us something about the relationship between the human social and nonhuman ecological components at the heart of the problem. These things are way outside the niche of typical experimental ecological studies.

Adapting to Change

But even as ecology is outgrowing its niche, it is already adapting to deal with these difficulties. What does this adaptation in ecology look like? We argue in this book that it is based in observational approaches and that it may look like a return to the old ways of ecology, but it is also a lot more than that. For example, there is a strong element of good old-fashioned natural history—the ancient human practice of observing and recording the diversity and changes of nature (as Tom Fleischner helps illuminate for us in Box 1.1)—in the new observational approaches we are seeing. There are, in fact, many concepts of what "natural history" is (Attenborough 2007; Fleischner 2005; Arnold 2003; Dayton and Sala 2001; Apple-gate 1999; Bartholomew 1997), and undoubtedly there will be times in this book where our ideas converge almost fully with one of them, and there will be times where we diverge quite far from the usual definitions of natural history. Our concept of observational approaches to ecology is both more and less than natural history. It is more than natural history because it incorporates remote observations, like those from satellite mapping and cameras strapped to whales, that are far removed from the human experience of nature usually associated with natural history (although some bold thinkers like Carlos Martinez del Rio argue that modern natural historians should fully embrace these technologies as part of their practice, see Chapter 4). Ecology is also less than natural history because we are, as much as possible, limiting our discussion to the scientific practice of ecology, whereas natural history, although potentially scientific, also widely embraces writing and poetry and art and philosophy. (See naturalhistorynetwork.org for examples of the broad scope of natural history.)

The observational approaches to ecology we discuss in this book also reflect a return to earlier ecological inquiries because they are often integrative of the social component of ecological systems, both in the types of data they are using and the types of questions they are addressing. Early ecologists were naturalists who took painstaking observations of natural systems and attempted to piece those observations together into a more holistic understanding of the world. Many were devoted to the idea that by understanding ecological systems we could gain understanding of human social systems. They were also surprisingly interdisciplinary without ever invoking that awkward word. Working after the horrors of the First World War and in the growing shadow of the Second, they were intensely interested in what studies of the relationships of organisms in nature had to say about conflict and cooperation among humans. Warder Allee, for example, felt that unexpected benefits came from cooperation among animals and that similar emergent benefits could accrue to human societies that modeled themselves after animal communities (Allee 1951, 1943). One of his students, the marine ecologist Edward Ricketts, noted that "the laws of animals must be the laws of men" and further refined his thinking through fruitful collaborations with writers like John Steinbeck and philosophers such as the mythologist Joseph Campbell (Rodger 2006; Tamm 2004).

Likewise, ecological science today is increasingly cognizant of the social implications of ecological systems. Some fields within ecology, such as conservation biology, are already well along this path. But observational methods are cropping up all over ecological inquiry and also spreading ecology far out into other realms of inquiry. One of Rafe's more unusual projects, for example, is working with an interdisciplinary group of ecologists, anthropologists, psychologists, public health experts, and counterterrorism experts, as well as soldiers, cops, firemen, and spies, to figure out what we can learn from 3.5 billion years of biological evolution for security questions in modern human society (Sagarin 2012; Sagarin et al. 2010; Sagarin 2010). Although some people have called this "Natural Security" project a "new" approach to security questions, it is essentially doing exactly what Allee and Ricketts and many other early ecologists were doing decades ago—taking their observed knowledge about how natural organisms solve environmental problems and connecting it to unsolved societal problems.

But there is also a big difference between what ecologists are doing now and what those long-gone renaissance men and women were doing, and it has to do with the different opportunities available to today's ecologists, arising from new technologies and advances in old technologies that allow us to observe ecological systems in wholly unprecedented ways. Thanks to remote sensing, genomic screening, and animal-borne sensors, to name a few technical marvels, we can now conduct ecology at the very smallest levels of biological organization—at the level of gene-environment interactions—and also at the vary largest levels by observing whole regions of the planet at once. We are even breaking past the boundaries of planet Earth and considering extraterrestrial ecological questions such as, what are the conditions available to support life on Mars?

Rediscovering natural history. Embracing the social sciences. Looking beyond academia for knowledge. Using humans as the focal points of ecological studies and animals as the observers. Adopting technologies once reserved for the CIA and NASA and biotech corporations. All these relatively recent additions to an ecologist's repertoire are collectively stretching and pushing the science into all sorts of new directions. Besides their common roots as essentially observational methods for looking at ecological relationships, is there a way to characterize how these newly acquired tools are affecting ecological science?

The Domains of Observation-Based Ecology

One way to organize all these different ways of using observations in ecology is to consider the "domain" in which we'd like to conduct science. Steward Pickett and colleagues, who have attempted to define a new twenty-first-century philosophy for achieving ecological understanding (Pickett, Jones, and Kolasa 2007), use the concept of domain to mean the "phenomena or scales of interest" of an ecological study. In its simplest form, the domain is defined when we ask, "What is this study about?" The domain then acts as a filter through which all the data we gather, the theories we consider, and the hypotheses we conceive must pass in order to become part of our study. For example, if our question is "Why are there some purple sea stars and some orange ones?" our domain is basic ecology, and it is likely that theories about environmental justice or data sets on income inequality between coastal human populations will not be all that important in our study.

There are at least four domains in which observational approaches can play an expansive role. First, there is the "purpose" domain which deals with the goals or aspirations of a particular study. Is it basic ecology, aimed at discovering or describing a new phenomenon? Is it applied? Or is it to educate? Observational approaches work well in all of these realms. There are countless basic questions about ecology that can be approached with large amounts of observational data. For example, Rafe and colleagues used 14,000 observations of starfish color and size to reveal that across almost the entire range of the starfish, the ratio of orange-to dark-colored starfish remained virtually unchanged, a completely unexpected and hard-to-explain pattern based on experimentally derived theories of color polymorphism (Raimondi et al. 2007). While experimental approaches also are well suited to addressing basic ecological questions, they have often failed to provide needed insight for applied questions. For example, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, which hosts Friday Harbor Laboratories, the second-oldest marine biology laboratory on the U.S. West Coast, ecologist Terrie Klinger was frustrated and embarrassed to find that almost none of the ecological studies conducted there over the past century (which were mostly experimental) could help local communities who asked her for scientific advice on conservation and restoration planning (Klinger 2008). Even a simple monitoring scheme to track populations of key species at several sites around Friday Harbor would have been invaluable.


Excerpted from Observation and Ecology by Rafe Sagarin, Anibal Pauchard. Copyright © 2012 Rafe Sagarin and Aníbal Pauchard. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Rafe Sagarin is an assistant research scientist, marine ecologist, and environmental policy analyst, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona. Aníbal Pauchard is Associate Professor of Plant Ecology and Invasion Biology in the Faculty of Forest Sciences, University of Concepción, Chile.

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