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Oceanic islands as model systems for ecological studies


Peter M. Vitousek, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. E-mail:



The purposes of this paper are to suggest that a greater use of model systems would advance our understanding of ecology, and to illustrate that oceanic islands are valuable model systems for ecosystem studies in particular.


The illustrations discussed herein result from studies in the Hawaiian Islands.


Sequences of sites that are similar in most respects but differ widely in temperature, precipitation or substrate age have been developed and analysed in the Hawaiian Islands. Process studies, experiments and models arrayed on these gradients are used to determine fundamental controls over ecosystem processes, with a precision that cannot be duplicated in continental ecosystems.


Increasing temperatures enhance rates of decomposition to a greater extent than plant production, in soil organic matter as well as litter. Ecosystem-level losses of N by fractionating pathways are greater in drier sites. Sea spray and long-distance dust transport play increasing roles in the nutrient economy of ecosystems as soils become progressively older.

Main conclusions

All of the results describe processes that occur in continental as well as island ecosystems, but a number of features of islands make the processes more amenable to analysis on islands.