PBIO-425 Plant Ecology. Origins of Ecology. Ecology as a Science. The Tripod. What Ecology is Not

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1 PBIO-425 Plant Ecology Outline 1. Syllabus 2. Ecology as a Science Scientific Knowledge Objectivity, Subjectivity, Choice, & Chance in Research Experiments Testing Theories Specific Results & General Understanding 3. Origins of Ecology Ecology as a Science The biological science of Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environments, the interactions of organisms with one another, and their patterns and causes of the abundance and distribution of organisms in nature. Here, we will consider ecology from the perspective of the terrestrial plant; thus, Plant Ecology. Relative to many other sciences, ecology is a relatively new science. The word ecology was first used by a German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel in 1870 (originally oekologie ). The word ecology comes from the Greek root oikos or home, and logos or study of. Ecology is often split in to sub-disciplines for convenience. This might include plant vs. animal ecology, or applied vs. basic ecology but all of these sub-divisions are really arbitrary. What Ecology is Not Ecology is not environmental or political activism, although ecologists can be environmental activists in their personal lives, and environmental activists may rely on ecological research. Ecology is not about one s feelings about nature ecology is a science that works like every other scientific discipline (e.g., physics, chemistry, etc.). The Tripod Ecology, like all science, is built upon a tripod of pattern, process, and theory. Pattern consists of the relationships between pieces or entities of the natural world. Processes are the causes of those patterns. Theories are the explanations of those causes. When ecologists carry out research, they attempt to put all of this together in to a cohesive fashion.

2 Primary vs. Secondary Research There is a distinction between the kind of research a scientist does and the kind of research done for a term paper. Research carried out by students is often referred to as secondary research: data are gathered confirming facts that already exist. Research carried out by research scientists is usually referred to as primary research: gathering data or finding out facts that no one has ever known before. It is the experience of discovery that intrigues & excites most scientists. Scientific Method Scientists gain knowledge by using the scientific method. They carry out a series of steps, although not always in a fixed order. In ecology, these steps can be summarized as follows: Observation Description Quantification Posing hypotheses Testing hypotheses with experiments Verification/Rejection/Revision of hypotheses Throughout this process, ecologists look for pattern, propose processes, and eventually construct theories. Theory The word theory has a very different meaning in science than it does in common usage. A scientific theory is a broad comprehensive explanation of a large body of information that, over time, must be supported and ultimately confirmed (or rejected) by the accumulation of a wide range of different kinds of evidence. Something becomes a theory after it has been butressed over many years by consistent findings all supporting the same idea (e.g., Theory of Evolution). In popular usage, the word theory usually refers to a hunch or a guess about something. This has caused no end of mischief in the popular press. Hypotheses A scientific hypothesis is a possible explanation for a particular observation or set of observations. A hypothesis is smaller in scope than a fully developed theory. Hypotheses must be testable; i.e., contain a prediction or statement that can be verified or rejected using scientific evidence. For example, one can not form a hypothesis regarding the existence of a God because it is not testable using the scientific method. This is a crucial aspect of science: hypotheses are not accepted on faith there is a need to provide evidence.

3 Objectivity, Subjectivity, Choice, & Chance in Research Ideas in science, especially in ecology, come from a variety of sources. While everyone knows that science is objective and rational, that is only half the story. In order to reach a genuinely new understanding about something, subjectivity and creativity must come in to play. Subjectivity that enters in to science: what one chooses to research, where one chooses to research it, how it is researched, what is and is not a valid subject of research. All of these questions are ultimately dealt with in an objective fashion as the hypothesis is tested and the experiment undertaken. Creativity is an a very important component of research. It may be by choice or chance. Models Some of the most important tools in the scientists toolbox are models. A model is an abstraction or simplification that expresses structures or relationships. Models are the best way for the human mind to attempt to understand very complex processes. Models are built through successive refinement; i.e., they start very simply and more is added to gain insight as complexity is added. Models can be abstract or tangible, made of plastic or words. Most ecological models are mathematical. Models are used to define patterns, summarize processes, and generate hypotheses. Models Experiments A cornerstone of the scientific method is the experiment. Ecologists in particular use a very wide variety of experiments. Ecologists think of experiments in the broadest sense of the term: a test of an idea. Ecological experiments can be classified in to three types: - manipulative - natural - observational Manipulative Experiments Manipulative Experiments Manipulative experiments are controlled experiments. These are what most of us think of when we think experiment. A scientist manipulates the world in some fashion and looks for a pattern. Usually, there is some type of treatment and a control (to compare against). Ecological experiments can be conducted in controlled environment rooms (growth chambers), greenhouses, experimental gardens, or in the field. The former are most easily controlled, the latter have variable real-world environments. Manipulative experiments are powerful tools for two reasons. First, the scientist can control the which parts of the natural world will be altered to study their effect. Second, factors can be separated that typically occur together and studies singly. Sometimes experiments are plagued by artifacts and they have to be designed carefully so that the investigator knows exactly what is being controlled for and that the treatment is not linked to an unknown factor.

4 Konza Prairie Research Area, Kansas Manipulative Experiments Another limitation of many manipulative experiments is that of scale. Ecology is a discipline that often occurs across large scales of space and time (e.g., global climate change, or species distribution across continents). Ecologists are however making great efforts to study pattern and process at larger scales. A good example is that of the Konza Prairie. The preserve is divided in to a large number of patches, which are subjected to different combinations of burning and grazing Konza Prairie Research Area, Kansas Konza Prairie Research Area, Kansas Konza Prairie Research Area, Kansas

5 Natural Experiments Natural Experiments Natural experiments are manipulations caused by nature. For example, a tornado may blow down a forest, a fire may burn a prairie, a volcano may erupt and destroy vegetation and create new lava beds for colonization. Just like manipulative experiments, in the natural experiment, the scientist compares the altered system relative to the unaltered system. Natural and manipulative experiments represent a tradeoff between realism and precision, similar to the trade-off between laboratory and field studies. The major limitation of natural experiments is that the investigator has no assurances that the system was uniform before the event or that the area is similar to another adjacent unaltered system. Thus, there is always the risk of comparing apples to oranges. The best natural experiments are those that repeat themselves in space or time. For example, if an investigator studies the forest response to 3 separate tornadoes, and the response is similar, she can have increased confidence in the results. Observational Experiments Observational Experiments Observational experiments consist of the systematic study of natural variation. Such observations are or measurements are experiments if the investigator starts out with one or more hypotheses. For example, one could measure the pattern of species diversity across a continent to test a hypothesis relating the number of species to productivity. The biggest limitation of this type of study is again the lack of control, and the potential for multiuple factors to interact together. As with natural experiments, confidence in the results of observational experiments will be increased if there is replication in space or time. Other sciences such as astronomy and geology rely very heavily on this type of approach to science. Ecological knowledge comes from combining information from a source of experimental approaches and ultimately what makes ecology a very exciting science! Regulation of independent variables Site matching Ability to follow trajectory Maximum Temporal Scale Maximum Spatial Scale Experiments in Ecology Strengths and Weaknesses Laboratory Experiment Yes Field Experiment Medium/Low Medium Yes Low Natural Trajectory Experiment None Medium/Low Yes Natural Snapshot Experiment None No Testing Theories Karl Popper, a German philosopher (1959) was the first to codify the notion that we can never prove a scientific hypothesis or theory, we can only test or either falsify or fail to falsify a notion. While hypothesis testing and falsification is an important part of theory testing, it is not the whole story. Range of Manipulations Realism Generality None/Low None Medium/Low High Low Medium/High High High In the strict Popperian Framework, all theories are held to be potentially false. We never actually prove a hypothesis, we merely disprove ideas that are false.

6 Testing Theories Moreover, the Popperian framework fails to account for a type of question that we very commonly ask in ecology. In other words, often we are not interested whether something occurs or not, but what it s relative effect is. For example, we often do not wish to now whether competition is acting to structure a plant community we know it is the question is how much and in what ways does competition act to structure the community. When the evidence in favor of a scientific theory becomes overwhelming and the vast majority of scientists are convinced of its validity, then the theory is usually accepted. Specific vs. General Understanding Because ecologists work on very diverse systems at varying scales, the immediate question becomes, how generalizable are the results? Do they pertain to other species or ecosystems at differing space or time scales? Experiments in ecology are different than those in say physics. Often the latter has universal constructs, but the former do not. Thus, ecologists must be cautious about extending their findings too far past their experiments. Over time and after much replication, a concensus is usually reached. Specific vs. General Understanding One approach to resolving the tension between specific results and general patterns is to see how the results fit in to existing working models. Another approach is to use methods of quantitative synthesis and compare the results of multiple experiments. These methods are known as metaanalysis. This approach is often useful for looking at a whole broad body of research and its results. A great deal of recent interest in ecology has been generated by a consideration of how ecological patterns and processes vary as a function of the scale at which they operate and have been studied. The same phenomenon can often be seen in a very different light when studies at an alternative scale. Different kinds of things can be going on at different scales. We often refer to scale changes as a hierarchy, and one can move up or down different hierarchies. An example of what we mean by the effects of scale and heterogeneity might be best viewed using an example. Suppose we look at repeated observations of the period of ice cover of Lake Mendota in Wisconsin.

7 Looking at one year is largely meaningless & generates only a single point. But looking at ten years shows considerable heterogeneity from year to year and also shows that 1998 was the warmest year in a decade If we increase the scale to 50 years, we see that there is clearly a cycle of warmer winters occurring every few years (we now know this to be the result of the El Nino Southern Oscillation). Expanding the scale further, to almost 150 years, we see that overall winters are warmer now than they were 140 years ago and there appears to be a steday decline in the duration of ice cover on the lake (against a background of year to year variation & El Nino cycles One of the reasons that scale is now recognized as being so important is that the world is a very heterogeneous place. For example, the habitat of a species is the kind of environment it generally inhabits and includes the set of biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors that influences it in the places in which it usually occurs. But, the microhabitat, the conditions immediately surrounding a plant or population, may differ greatly from the general habitat

8 Microhabitats

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