• Semantics;
  • stress;
  • life history;
  • foraging;
  • rarity;
  • abundance;
  • radionuclides;
  • Chernobyl

Opposition to use of the word ‘stress’ and other terms of wide ambit in ecology and evolutionary biology often signifies a commitment to programmes of detailed research and narrowed focus. This approach is justified where the objective is to analyse the demographic, genetic or biochemical mechanisms of contemporary populations. However, concepts employing ‘stress’ are vital to those forms of research that seek to obtain a broader perspective by recognizing ecological and evolutionary patterns with a high degree of repetition (sensu MacArthur, 1968 in R. C. Lewontin, Population Biology & Evolution). It is argued that there are recurrent types of evolutionary response to stress and that these provide important clues to the structure and dynamics of communities and ecosystems. Such patterns can assist our understanding of phenomena as widely divergent as the decline or expansion of populations within the British flora and fauna and the persistence of radionuclides in unproductive terrestrial ecosystems.