Communicating the value of ecology


S.J. Ormerod (e-mail


1. Environmental change and impact continue to create a major need for the application of ecology. We attempted to ascertain whether authors in the Journal of Applied Ecology made relevant contributions at appropriate spatio-temporal scales to the problems that result.

2. A review of 84 papers published in the Journal during 1999 indicated that all carried information of direct value in environmental management, and 46% made explicit management recommendations.

3. The techniques used most frequently by applied ecologists were correlational (48% of all papers; including ordination) or anova-style comparisons between replicated locations that were either purposely manipulated or contrasted on a priori criteria (38%). Models (13%), laboratory experiments, mark–recapture studies and observational work – involving for example stable isotopes – also figured. This breadth reveals how classical and novel approaches in ecology are brought to bear on real environmental problems. The journal continues to publicise innovative new techniques with applied relevance.

4. In keeping with the widespread use of correlation and a priori contrasts, 34% of published studies in 1999 involved time scales exceeding >5–10 years. Similarly, 40% of studies approached problems in large, regional contexts. Applied ecologists are clearly providing leadership in developing methods to tackle challenging questions at spatio-temporal scales beyond the capabilities of manipulative ecological experiments. We will augment this area of the Journal's work with a special issue on large-scale processes in 2000.

5. Only 20% of the papers published explicitly state clearly testable hypotheses, but nearly all state clear aims or questions being addressed.

6. Overwhelmingly, papers approach applied ecology by seeking to assess the effects of anthropogenic factors on ecological systems, and a minority assess the effects of organisms on human activity. Few studies, by contrast, use anthropogenic impacts to test or develop ecological theory. We suggest this is an area ripe for development.

7. Points 2, 3 and 4 above demonstrate how the Journal of Applied Ecology communicates the value and utility of ecology to society at large. We prompt leading ecologists to maintain their involvement with the application of ecology to problem solving. We urge authors to emphasize further the generic value in their work. We predict that applied ecology will continue as a vital tool in detecting ecological problems and informing environmental management. It will emerge also as an arena for advancing the fundamental nature of our discipline.

The current context for applied ecology: tackling crucial issues

For several years, the texts of the British Ecological Society (BES) Lectures, intended to bring key thinkers on the global environment to the heart of our Society, have provided sobering and persuasive reading. In 1994, Martin Holdgate (Holdgate 1994) – at that time Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – prompted us to enter the debate on sustainability. He challenged us to better parameterize habitat stability, extinction rates, resilience and environmental carrying capacities as factors that determine the integrity and stress-limits of ecosystem. In turn, we could offer much needed scientific understanding to concepts of sustainability that were still largely socio-economic and political. Later the same year, the Earl of Selborne (Selborne 1995), speaking in the joint contexts of nature conservation and the delivery of Agenda 21, pleaded for environmental accounting. Environmental changes that could arise as an adjunct to economic activities such as agriculture (impacts by pesticides, nutrients, habitat alteration, drainage) would not necessarily be inimical to nature conservation if we properly understood and monitored ecological systems. He wrote that ‘neither Government policy nor industrial investment is being adequately informed by science’ and that ‘the biological sciences have a crucial role’.

In 1996, Sir Crispin Tickell (Tickell 1996) – a guest every bit as important for his political eminence as for his address – outlined the effects on environmental quality that have arisen from continuing population growth: changes in land quality, soil fertility, water quality, acidification, altered UV radiation, climate change. In a paradigm that paralleled the debate on the appropriate scale for ecological investigations, he reminded us that political power is increasingly diversifying to become both more local and more global. The following year, in a lecture resounding with both depth and humour, Joel Cohen (Cohen 1997) took us again into the population debate. His own question – about how many people the earth can support – had no answer that was separable from other questions about natural constraints, human choices and the uncertainty that prevented clear answers. He reminded us, too, that environments – and implicitly therefore ecology – sat in close juxtaposition with considerations of population, economy and culture in the whole population question.

Most recently – but certainly not finally – Robert Watson (Watson 1999), Environmental Director of the World Bank, illustrated why ‘ecology is absolutely central to everyday living’. Of all our invited lecturers, his review was the most comprehensive in detail and coverage of the adjuncts to economic growth and poverty: climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, ozone depletion in the stratosphere, deforestation, surface water degradation, persistent pollutants. He pointed us to an important discontinuity: individual human actions take place over days, months or – if you are a government representative – election cycles of 2–6 years. By contrast, natural and human-induced changes in environmental systems have effects often over years, decades and millennia, operating at all scales from local to global.

Do we deliver?

These lists of issues roll easily from the tongue or the pen: population growth, climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, ozone depletion, deforestation, surface water degradation, persistent pollutants. Their consequences, however, continue to be immediate, direct and costly by any system of accounting and in any currency. The single inescapable link between them is that they embody the wider context in which ecology is applied to crucial problems. All of our work stems from these same issues as we strive to manage biological resources and environments from an informed perspective. They embody the problems and impacts that our management recommendations must advise (Pienkowski & Watkinson 1996). To what extent do authors in this Journal truly deliver information that informs the environmental debate?

Of all the journals published by the British Ecological Society, we believe that the Journal of Applied Ecology is the most important direct contributor. The evidence is within the Journal's pages. Questions posed by applied ecologists arise at all spatial scales, from the highly local effects of pesticides (e.g. Lester, Thistlewood & Harmsen 1998) to problems arising from global change (e.g. Percival, Sutherland & Evans 1998). They involve key issues such as the conservation of threatened (Milner-Gulland & Lhagvasuren 1998) or declining species (Norris et al. 1998). They assess the impacts of major pollution incidents (Forseth et al. 1998), habitat loss (Sutherland 1998) and habitat fragmentation (Kellman, Tackaberry & Rigg 1998), often in globally important locations (Basset et al. 1998). They advise nature conservation in its wider sense (Ostermann 1998) and in direct conjunction with agricultural policy (Bignal 1998). They assess habitat remediation following previous damage (Buttler, Grosvernier & Matthey 1998), assess the effects of pest species on human resources (Pech & Hood 1998), and advise the management of exploited stocks (Horwood, Nichols & Milligan 1998). They detect trends using biological indicators (Tscharntke, Gathmann & Steffan-Dewenter 1998). Sometimes, authors in this journal have contributed on major environmental issues – such as genetically modified organisms – long before their societal importance was fully appreciated (Raybould & Gray 1993). Also, our contributors are in the van of new tools to address important problems (Brook & Kikkawa 1998).

A sub-sample of papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology during 1999 reveals the breadth of work underway, and the innovation it involves (see Appendix 1,Table 1). Experimental approaches figure strongly, particularly among botanical papers: consistent with the central role that experimental methods now have in our subject (Hairston 1989). At the same time, however, some ecological processes occur at scales too large to be reproduced by replicated manipulation – often stemming from exactly those human activities that Robert Watson outlined in his BES lecture (Watson 1999; see also Levin 1992). These are also the kind of problems often addressed by papers in the Journal of Applied Ecology: 34% confront issues using data spanning time scales exceeding 5 years, and 40% involve issues that can only be seen clearly at spatial scales in excess of tens of square kilometres (Tables 2 & 3). In view of the limited spatial scales over which experiments are feasible (Kareiva & Anderson 1989), applied ecologists must therefore seek alternative methods of testing hypotheses. As a direct result, non-interventionist observational approaches figure strongly in applied ecological work (Table 1). This is not to say that they lose statistical robustness: papers in this journal are replete with leading examples where management problems are used in the innovative development of replicated a priori comparisons, multivariate correlation and modelling (Table 4). The robust examination of models and hypotheses at large scales – particularly using empirical data – will continue to present major challenge. Nevertheless, authors in this Journal have provided important contributions in reviewing the options available (Manel et al. 1999). Moreover, applied ecologists are able to offer sound pragmatic advice for environmental managers on the basis of this work – with 46% of papers carrying clear and explicit recommendations in 1999. We will return to large-scale ecological themes in a special issue of the Journal during 2000.

Table 1.  Study designs used in papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology during 1999. All the values are percentages of the subsample of papers listed in Appendix 1
Basic designBotanical (n = 30)Zoological (n = 54)All papers (n = 84)
Observation (i.e. no experimental intervention)325246
Field experiment492331
Observation plus modelling01813
Laboratory experiment702
Experiment plus modelling422
Table 2.  Variation in temporal scale addressed in papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology during 1999. All the values are percentages of the subsample of papers listed in Appendix 1
Time scalePercentage of papers (n = 84)
5–10 years15
2–4 years38
1 year28
Table 3.  Variation in spatial scales addressed in papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology during 1999. All the values are percentages of the subsample of papers listed in Appendix 1
Spatial scaleBotanical (n = 30)Zoological (n = 54)All papers (n = 84)
Regional (> km2 × 10 – km2 × 103)32718
Site to regional (km2– km × 10)232122
Site (ha − ha × 10)233229
Plot-scale to site (m2 × 10 − ha)131111
Plot-scale (< m2 − m2 × 10)38920
Table 4.  Statistical approaches used in 84 papers published in the Journal of Applied Ecology during 1999. All values are percentages, and in this analysis are not mutually exclusive
TechniquePercentage of papers
Correlation (including ordination)48
Replicated a priori comparisons38
Unreplicated comparisons4
Clearly stated hypothesis?20

Shared expertise

One interesting contrast to arise from the data on study design is the tendency of botanical papers to be framed in experimental contexts at smaller spatial scales while applied animal ecologists rely more on observation at larger scales (Tables 1 & 3). The reasons stem in part from the disciplinary background of workers from different fields; agricultural plot designs, for example, are likely to influence plant ecologists. Equally, the contrasts reflect the relative size range of the organisms under review by plant and animal ecologists: large organisms range over areas less amenable to meaningful experiments. Only in these pages, and in the other relatively young BES journal, Functional Ecology, do our readers have the direct opportunity to share their contrasting techniques between fields. We advocate that workers using predominantly experimental techniques should keep a close eye on developments of observational techniques, and vice versa, to better share expertise in how best to test hypotheses.

Is this all there is to applied ecology?

The exact definition of what constitutes applied ecology is bound to be elusive when such a wide array of issues falls within our scope. In very large part, contributors to this Journal see the subject as the use of experiments, models or observations to inform environmental management or to prompt management action where they detect adverse change (Fig. 1). A typical contribution will suggest the management actions required to arrest the decline of important species (Gregory & Baillie 1998).

Figure 1.

A conceptual model of applied ecology. Ecological theories, experiments, observations and models might be used in any combination to prompt or inform environmental management in its widest sense. Equally, human environmental interventions offer an important opportunity to test and develop basic ecological theory.

By contrast, very few published papers in the Journal are theoretical in any sense (Table 1). This is unfortunate for several reasons. First, theory is a central part of any science – including ecology (Lawton 1999). Secondly, some of the major theoretical issues in ecology have stemmed from current applied problems: fragmentation; meta-population models; the determinants of extinction; island biogeography and reserve design; the nature of disturbance. Thirdly, there are clearly areas of applied ecology that have generated their own theory. Conceptual models of how ecosystems might ‘recover’ from damage is one example (Dobson, Bradshaw & Baker 1997). Finally – and this is linked with the previous example – many ecologists believe that our ability to successfully manage ecosystems is the ultimate test of whether ecological theory is correct (Bradshaw 1996). We therefore offer the definition of applied ecology as ‘the interface between classical or new ecological approaches and human-induced effects on individuals, populations, communities, ecosystems or ecosystem processes’.

This latter point, and the notion of a two-way interface, is central to Figure 1. Not only does ecology advise or prompt management action, but applied problems provide opportunities to test or develop ecological theory. If, indeed, Bradshaw's (1996) view is correct, applied problems offer some of the most important tests of theory we can apply. Such opportunities are particularly important at large spatial scales – where anthropogenic change creates an experimental context far beyond the possibilities of most research budgets. We see work in this domain as an area ripe for development in applied ecology generally.

Conclusion: communicating the value of ecology

Taken together, the ensemble of methods used by authors in the Journal of Applied Ecology reveals how classical and novel approaches in ecology are brought to bear – often with foresight and leadership – on real environmental problems. Our contributors use robust, tried-and-tested approaches at experimental scales, and offer innovative methods for work at scales where experimentation is no longer an option. In these respects, the Journal of Applied Ecology communicates all aspects of the value of ecology to society at large. We reveal the value of ecological processes as goods and services, and identify their contribution to the quality of life. We offer generic management advice, prompt it by detecting adverse change, or confirm its value where change is beneficial. We illustrate instances where organisms pose risk or interfere with legitimate environmental use. We exemplify operations in which ecologists can seek employment. We provide the ultimate domain where the benefits of fundamental ecological research are turned to social use. We offer the chance to develop and test ecological theory about applied problems. We urge you – the world's leading ecologists – to maintain your involvement with applied issues as readers and writers of the Journal of Applied Ecology.


We could not have completed this editorial without the help of Dr Gill Kerby.


Appendix 1

The source material used in an assessment of the current scope of papers in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Full references are available above.

Abbot &; Homewood (1999)
Banks (1999)
Barker, Brown & Reynolds (1999)
Bearhop et al. (1999)
Bending & Moffat (1999)
Beukema & Cadee (1999)
Brown & Singleton (1999)
Burdon et al. (1999)
Butterfield (1999)
Caro (1999)
Chamberlain et al. (1999)
Chambers, Mauquoy & Todd (1999)
Cherrill & McClean (1999)
Davies et al. (1999)
Donegan et al. (1999)
Duncan et al. (1999)
Edwards, Crawley & Heard (1999)
Ekelund (1999)
Everson et al. (1999)
Fensham & Holman (1999)
Fernandez-Gimenez & Allen-Diaz (1999)
Ferreras & Macdonald (1999)
Fierro, Angers & Beauchamp (1999)
Foley, Foley & Pedersen (1999)
Forsyth (1999)
Gange, Lindsay & Ellis (1999)
Gaston, Blackburn & Gregory (1999)
Grant et al. (1999)
Green & Etheridge (1999)
Grundy, Mead & Burston (1999)
Hald (1999)
Hardersen, Wratten & Frampton (1999)
Hargis, Bissonette & Turner (1999)
Harkonen, Harding & Lunneryd (1999)
Haugland & Froud-Williams (1999)
Hester et al. (1999)
Hill (1999)
Hoare (1999)
Holt, Colvin & Muniyappa (1999)
Hone (1999)
Hoodless et al. (1999)
Hulme et al. (1999)
Jordan et al. (1999)
Komulainen et al. (1999)
Korhola, Weckstrom & Nyman (1999)
Kyto et al. (1999)
Landa et al. (1999)
Lintell Smith et al. (1999)
McConnell et al. (1999)
McDonald & Harris (1999)
McKay et al. (1999)
Major et al. (1999)
Manel et al. 1999
Marshall & Brain (1999)
Mauritzen et al. (1999)
Mitchell et al. (1999)
Moore et al. (1999)
Nagendra & Gadgil (1999)
Narisu, Lockwood & Schell (1999)
Osborne et al. (1999)
Painter (1999)
Palma, Beja & Rodrigues (1999)
Peach, Siriwardena & Gregory (1999)
Peet et al. (1999)
Perry, Sparrow & Owens (1999)
Philcox, Grogan & Macdonald (1999)
Phillips, Thompson & Hamer (1999)
Read (1999)
Robin & Denis (1999)
Rodriguez & Andren (1999)
Sanchez-Zapata & Calvo (1999)
Sarno et al. (1999)
Senina, Tyutyunov & Arditi (1999)
Siex & Struhsaker (1999)
Spitz & Lek (1999)
Spurgeon, Hopkin & Rimmer (1999)
Stylinski & Allen (1999)
Sullivan, Lautenschlager & Wagner (1999)
Tenow et al. (1999)
Tuyttens et al. (1999)
Volchansky, Hoffmann & Zimmermann (1999)
Wallinga et al. (1999)
Watson (1999)
Wettstein & Schmid (1999)
Woodroffe, Frost & Clifton-Hadley (1999)