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Accidental experiments: ecological and evolutionary insights and opportunities derived from global change


J. HilleRisLambers, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-1800, USA. E-mail:


Humans are the dominant ecological and evolutionary force on the planet today, transforming habitats, polluting environments, changing climates, introducing new species, and causing other species to decline in number or go extinct. These worrying anthropogenic impacts, collectively termed global change, are often viewed as a confounding factor to minimize in basic studies and a problem to resolve or quantify in applied studies. However, these ‘accidental experiments’ also represent opportunities to gain fundamental insight into ecological and evolutionary processes, especially when they result in perturbations that are large or long in duration and difficult or unethical to impose experimentally. We demonstrate this by describing important fundamental insights already gained from studies which utilize global change factors as accidental experiments. In doing so, we highlight why accidental experiments are sometimes more likely to yield insights than traditional approaches. Next, we argue that emerging environmental problems can provide even more opportunities for scientific discovery in the future, and provide both examples and guidelines for moving forward. We recommend 1) a greater flow of information between basic and applied subfields of ecology and evolution to identify emerging opportunities; 2) considering the advantages of the ‘accidental experiment’ approach relative to more traditional approaches; and 3) planning for the challenges inherent to uncontrolled accidental experiments. We emphasize that we do not view the accidental experiments provided by global change as replacements for scientific studies quantifying the magnitude of anthropogenic impacts or outlining strategies for mitigating impacts. Instead, we believe that accidental experiments are uniquely situated to provide insights into evolutionary and ecological processes that ultimately allow us to better predict and manage change on our human-dominated planet.


Humans have an increasingly large impact on the planet. In response, ecologists and evolutionary biologists are dedicating increasing scientific attention to global change, largely with studies documenting biological effects and testing strategies to avoid or reverse negative impacts. In this article, we analyze global change from a different perspective, and suggest that human impacts on the environment also serve as valuable ‘accidental experiments’ that can provide fundamental scientific insight. We highlight and synthesize examples of studies taking this approach, and give guidance for gaining future insights from these unfortunate ‘accidental experiments’.