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Scale-dependence in Ecological Systems

  1. Judi E Hewitt,
  2. Simon F Thrush,
  3. Carolyn Lundquist

Published Online: 15 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021903



How to Cite

Hewitt, J. E., Thrush, S. F. and Lundquist, C. 2010. Scale-dependence in Ecological Systems. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Hamilton, New Zealand

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 JAN 2010

This is not the most recent version of the article. View current version (16 JAN 2017)


Scale has a profound influence on how we conduct ecological studies, interpret results and understand the links between processes operating at different rates. All of these factors profoundly influence our ability to predict responses to change. The ecological patterns and variability we observe range from millimetres to across ocean basins and from seconds to the expanse of evolutionary history. Patterns apparent at one scale can collapse to noise when viewed from other scales, indicating that perceptions of the importance of different processes vary in a scale-dependent manner. Moreover, rather than the environment simply providing an arena within which organisms are born grow and die, many organisms interact with the environment, altering it for both for themselves and for other species. Because of these factors, studying ecological systems is far from simple and scale needs to be considered in study design and analysis.

Key concepts:

  • The pattern you see depends on the scale at which you study it.

  • Threats from human activities occur at varying scales, from small point sources to large diffuse threats and changes in disturbance regimes across landscapes.

  • How organisms interact with the environment depends on how they perceive it and how patchy it is.

  • How an organism moves and how far it can move is crucial to how an organism perceives and responds to their environment.

  • Many organisms can alter their environment, both for themselves and for other species.

  • Because most processes are scale-dependent, studies must explicitly consider scale in their design.

  • Understanding both the scale of threats and the scale over which species live are essential for successful management and conservation.


  • scale;
  • mobility;
  • metapopulations;
  • study design;
  • conservation;
  • protected area networks