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SPECIAL FEATURE Empirically Motivated Ecological Theory1

Summary: 3137
Empirically Motivated Ecological Theory1
Mathematical theory has been used in ecology since ecology coalesced into a scientific dis-
cipline in the first half of the 20th century. The main use of theory has been to help ecologists
intuit a broad range of ecological patterns. For example, in 1926 Vito Volterra formulated a
model to explore why predatory fish increased and prey fish decreased in the Adriatic Sea during
World War I, and this led to an understanding of how predator­prey interactions generate cyclic
dynamics. As was true for Volterra, models used to address broad ecological problems are not
designed to be realistic per se, but instead are designed to increase the precision of our thinking
about mechanisms that can drive observed patterns.
While theory is still being used to address big, broad ecological problems, there is growing
use of models to address more humble problems that arise when studying specific systems. The
goals of these models are not the lofty objectives of general theory to explain broadly how
ecological systems should work. Instead, the goals are more modest, aimed at simply trying to
figure out a puzzle in a particular system. While these models contain details that tie them to
specific systems, they are still mathematical abstractions and hence are no more real than Volterra's
simple predator­prey model. Nonetheless, system-specific models can help to frame questions
about the real system, to generate hypotheses, and to exclude a priori explanations that, through
the focused lens of mathematics, do not make sense. As ecology becomes more quantitative,


Source: Agrawal, Anurag - Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology & Entomollogy, Cornell University


Collections: Environmental Sciences and Ecology