Diverse Introspectives: A Conversation with Peter Kareiva (22 Comments)

Peter Kareiva

On May 7th, fellow UW grad student Halley Froelich and I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist and director of science for The Nature Conservancy for our inaugural installment of Diverse Introspectives: Interviews from Visiting Scholars and Seminar Speakers.

Dr. Kareiva joined The Nature Conservancy in 2002, where his projects focus on the interplay of human land-use and biodiversity, resilience in the face of global change, and marine conservation. His academic achievements include over 100 publications spanning a broad range of topics and membership to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is known for a willingness to challenge paradigms and encourages members of our field to think critically about the purpose of our science and how to communicate it to the public. These themes ran through our conversation as we discussed the pitfalls of a single-minded focus on biodiversity, his hopes for the future of our field, strategies for advocacy, and the promise of citizen science.

We thank Dr. Kareiva for taking the time to meet with us, and we hope you enjoy what he has to say as much as we did!

What is a foundational paper in biodiversity that influenced you in your early career?

One of the most interesting papers that I read in the biodiversity arena was a Dan Simberloff paper in a book that I edited. It was basically questioning what happens when you lose species. He singled out an example of the American chestnut, which once covered 40-50% of Eastern North America, and we couldn’t find measurable impacts of it’s disappearance. Just the way he probed–as Simberloff is so good at, at the question of what happens when we lose even a dominant species was revealing? I thought that chapter was fascinating.

What are your hopes for the next generation of scientists? What should we be focused on?

I have what some think is a heretical view of biodiversity.  Look –I do want to prevent extinctions.  But I think what should be a reasonable concern for biodiversity has turned into a numerological and narrow counting of species, and has led to an over-emphasis on research aimed at rationalizing why biodiversity should matter to the general public.  Ecology matters to the general public because ecology is about water, pests and pestilence, recreation, food, resilience and so forth.  Perturbations to ecosystems in the form of massive pollution, land conversion, harvest, species loss can all distort ecology.  But focusing so narrowly on producing graphs that on the horizontal axis display number of species and on the vertical axis report some dependent ecological function (that is distantly related to human well-being) strikes me as not worth so much research.   Let’s get back to ecology—understanding how systems work, what controls dynamics, the role of particular species as opposed to the number of species, to what extent do ecosystems compensate for species losses, what factors contribute to resilience, whether there really are thresholds—all those are terrific research questions.  Counting species, and trying to produce what is, as far as I can tell, usually very weak evidence for the relationship between biodiversity perse and ecological function is off-track.

Early on in my job at TNC I presented to business leaders some of the empirical data plots from classic biodiversity and ecological function studies. These are studies we all interpret as strong evidence for the importance of biodiversity. I can tell you unequivocally when they saw the actual data they were totally unimpressed and unconvinced. It caused me to look more objectively at the data.

People of all kinds care about nature for a rich variety of reasons. It is our job as scientists to deliver an understanding of nature so that we can help inform those people of the consequences of public and private decision that impact nature.  Our mistake has been to focus too much only on the one narrow dimension of nature that systematic biologists, natural historians, and a portion of ecologists care about: biodiversity.  Understand nature in a way that serves the public, not yourself. And remember, biodiversity as a label didn’t come into fashion until the late 1980s. There was a tremendous amount of conservation ecology that produced a wealth of understanding and useful insight before the biodiversity meme. My prediction is that in 2030, we will not be talking about biodiversity anywhere near as much as we do now—instead we will be asking how nature can make humans more resilient to climate disruptions, and what are the limits we should avoid crossing if we want to maintain a reliable supply of food and water.

Do you think the framework of ecosystem services is more useful?

Yes, yes, far more useful than biodiversity—although we should stop using the phrase ecosystem services. Extensive public surveys have shown many people do not like the idea that nature serves humans.  We would be much better off talking about nature’s benefits, or the benefit of nature –and then quickly going to specific aspects of nature that impact our quality of life.  For me one of the most fascinating benefits of nature, and one I rarely see ecologists talking about, is nature’s role in human cognitive and mental health—how the surprise and beauty of nature can take us out of our self-absorption and turn a bad day or a bad week into a good day or a good week.  And note I say “nature” not biodiversity.

Speaking of ecosystem services, can you tell us about InVEST?  How is it being used?

InVEST is essentially a map-based tool that translates scenarios of different futures for our lands and waters (roads being built, development, forest cleared, mining, etc) into impacts on water supply, water quality, flood control, storm surge reduction, fish production, and sediment retention –those are the biggies. Those are the things that we have found governments, stakeholders, and businesses most often care about. It’s really a tool for comparing alternative scenarios for what we might do on the landscape or seascape. It does not give an answer—it shines a light on the consequences.

Is it really an MSE (Management Strategy Evaluation) approach?

It’s certainly a stakeholder engagement approach. In select settings, some of the models are sufficient to really make it quantitative enough to be more than a tool for stakeholder engagement.  For example, there are a huge number of offset mitigation programs all over the world and InVEST can guide where you put that offset mitigation effort.  Recently InVEST was used to identify coastal areas of the USA that should be a high priority for habitat protection (marshes, wetlands, oyster beds etc) as a natural defense against storm damage to vulnerable people and property. That is an ideal application of the tool.

How do you walk the line between advocacy and credibility? I know there is some concern among young scientists that if they get involved in trying to be influential early on, they will lose their credibility or won’t be taken seriously.

I don’t think that’s true. Take Jane Lubchenco – she is a member of the National Academy of Science, was the head of NOAA, and is widely respected as a leading ecologist. When Jane was in her late thirties or early forties – she personally pushed the Ecological Society of America to adopt the SBI or Sustainable Biosphere Initiative  Her message was that relevance is not a four-letter word for ecologists in basic research and academia. I remember her giving a talk on SBI when I was a very young scientist myself, and reacting negatively—I wondered if the SBI would contaminate the purity of science. Now I cannot believe I once thought that way.  But my point is not so much how foolish I was, but that Jane’s advocacy for the SBI is precisely what has earned her so many accolades.

All scientists have an ethical duty to be aware of pressing societal problems to which their science might be applied.  Advocacy is one response—and when the person has the right personality and is a gifted communicator—it is a terrific avenue to pursue.   I think it’s the tenor of one’s remarks that matters more than whether or not you engage in advocacy.  Can you be an honest broker? Can you avoid being prescriptive or holier than thou?  And most importantly can you use science to help find solutions?  We as scientists do two things: we solve problems and we point out problems.  In ecology, fisheries and conservation we have been really good at pointing out problems but not so good at solving problems. It’s easier to point out problems than to solve problems. You ask anybody– it’s easier to get a paper in Science or Nature by writing about doom and gloom, usually at the global level, than writing a paper that actually solves a problem.  When you solve a problem it’s doesn’t make a tidy story, and it’s almost never global. Think of all those global doom and gloom papers in Nature and Science — global collapse of fisheries, global ocean health, global extinction crisis, global deforestation, etc.  Sure those papers take the accumulation of data—but it is comparatively simple science.  I think we should put more attention on solving problems. We have the science to do it.

How is The Nature Conservancy implementing this strategy (avoiding doom and gloom, solving problems)?

We consciously try to stay away from doom-and gloom because we know it does not inspire action.  We have staff from business, and have many donors who make their living in business.   Businesses would go bankrupt if all they did was bemoan the state of the world. They confront challenges and try to surmount those challenges.  When I first went to work at TNC my boss was a woman who had been a CEO of a dot-com start-up and I was doing the typical science thing —  being skeptical about everything, bringing up problems, telling doom and gloom stories.  She scolded me and said: “it is fine to bring up problems, but from now on, please only bring up a problem if you can propose at least one practical solution—otherwise I do not want to hear about it”.   At first I was taken back by that. I foresaw a life of silence. But then I realized she had a great point, and it is a point I have since adopted.  If I went back to teaching grad school I would really push that point with grad students. It’s okay to bring up problems but if you just do that and leave it at that it gets so depressing to the public, and to yourself –so move beyond that stage.

How does citizen science fit into this picture? What do you think of it?  Do you think it can contribute credible science?

Citizen science is terrific. I think it’s one of the ways to actually create social changes and it could probably do more for the planet than anything else. We see it all the time, if you get people to not just be passive recipients of information but instead to be part of the information gathering, it makes a huge difference.

Do you see more value in the social or scientific outcomes? Do you think it can do both?

I think it can do both. We have a great case using Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s E-bird data in a very practical way to predict migratory birds in California. We intend to use that information to setup a reverse auction to pay farmers money to manage their fields for migrating birds –for example to keep them flooded during certain times of the year. E-bird is a terrific database and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is a global pioneer in citizen science. Now it needs to spread to other institutions, other formats, other types of data.   We can do so much more of that.  Our idea of using E-Bird data to provide stop-over habitat for migrating birds is just scratching the surface of citizen science delivering real on the ground conservation.

What is the disconnect between the potential of citizen science and its prevalence in the scientific mainstream?  Why aren’t we using it as much as we could?

Partly it’s a time lag. People have to see examples of it being used in cool ways. There’s also this distrust about the accuracy of the data. But come on now —  I mean I’ve seen data from my grad students. There is always sampling error, and there are statistical approaches to addressing that error.  I recently learned that E-bird did this really interesting test where they compared data from amateurs to the professional birders and found that the quality of data was the similar, but the amateurs were just much slower in gathering observations or records. But even if amateurs do have large errors—the data can still be profoundly useful to conservation and to science.  As we put sensors in our smart phones or use our smart phones to collect observations, the opportunity will grow exponentially.

Any parting thoughts?

Biodiversity has become a religious term for many as opposed to a scientific term. I have tried to have fun being provocative about biodiversity in this interview.  Debating science should be fun. Debating religion is rarely fun.  Yet when I challenge our thinking about biodiversity I often get reactions that remind me of challenging a religion.

I realize this interview is for a biodiversity website—yes?  I wish instead of biodiversity science, the website was dedicated to “understanding how nature works and benefits people”.  TNC has as its mission the protection of nature and the full variety of life—and this certainly includes protecting what you would call “biodiversity”.  We are very successful at gaining public support for land and water conservation. But when we do so, we never use the word biodiversity. We use the words: nature, water, health, wildlife.

Collectively we have an obligation to produce science that yields a basic understanding of what people care about in the realm of ecology and the environment.  This does not mean everyone—I began as a theoretical ecologist, and there is a need for pure theory as well.  But even for pure theory, I find biodiversity intellectually limiting.   It should be one dimension and one framing of your study—not the whole thing.  It would be like being a chef— only instead of being a specialist in Italian cuisine, you decided to be a carbohydrate chef, or a tomato chef, or an olive oil chef.  I bet most of the students who regularly engage with this website do it because they want to make a difference in the world. Given that – broaden your framework beyond biodiversity science—make it “nature’s dynamics and benefits”.

May 14, 2013

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  • Wow, what an excellent interview! Thanks to Dr. Kareiva for sitting down to talk with Hillary and Halley. I have a few thoughts I would like to express in response to some of the commentary here (apologies in advance for the length!)…

    First, I agree that biodiversity has been invoked as a blanket solution to problems. Whether this is justified or not depends on the evidence, and I disagree that the evidence is weak and unconvincing. Sure, biodiversity does not have the strong, pervasive influence that we first suspected it might—in fact, I blogged on why this might be just last week. But, on average, it does tend to enhance ecosystem functioning (although its relationship to services is, at this point, more tenuous) and, in certain systems and taxa, it has an extremely strong effect (I’m thinking here of Lars Gamfeldt’s 2005 Ecology Letters paper where the mixture had 16x higher production than the average single-species treatment).

    Understanding when and where biodiversity has these kinds of effects is critical in moving forward, especially in a conservation context. Evidence is mounting that, for example, the diversity effect is much greater in marine systems. Why is this? What is different about marine systems, or experiments done in this realm, that makes biodiversity such a strong driver of functioning? And can we use this information to better manage our oceans? (For those who are interested, Steve Palumbi and others made a number of really compelling arguments on this topic in a 2009 Frontiers paper.)

    A really good point that Palumbi et al.—and many others, including several authors on this blog—have made is that diversity is not just “number of species” on the x-axis. Diversity has multiple dimensions and we’re just beginning to understand how they relate to functioning. Understanding exactly which axis of diversity is important is another relative unknown, one that I think is very exciting. For example, classifying species based on their functional identities may not only provide a wealth of mechanistic insights into how communities influence ecosystem processes, but also help us better interpret previous experiments and syntheses. I don’t think we should abandon diversity as a line of inquiry, or at least, I will be disappointed if we do because I think there are lots of exciting discoveries to be made.

    Second, it’s interesting that you point out “problem-solving” as being a frontier for scientists. Vinicius, a blogger here, pointed out a paper in last Friday’s post that just appeared in PLoS ONE on trends in ecological research. The frequency of publications on what that they called “problem-solving” showed 100% increase over a 20 year period. Yet, it’s kind of a catch-22. As a scientist, I know overfishing is bad: I’ve seen the ecological, evolutionary, and economic data. So what is the solution? Well, to me, it’s pretty simple: stop fishing! But many nations have overcapitalized and oversubsidized their fishing industries, so now they are left with massive unused infrastructure and workforce. Because people’s livelihoods are dependent on this industry, governments can’t just pull the plug on fishing. But that’s not an ecological problem, that’s an economic one. So I don’t think it’s necessarily it’s the role of ecologists in particular to provide solutions instead of point out problems (although I heartily agree that if a solution exists and is reasonable, then scientists have a duty to at least propose it). Rather there needs to be more cross-talk between ecologists, economists, social scientists, and government agencies—the ones with the power to enact change—to arrive at measured responses to global change, including diversity loss (the newly minted SESYNC is a good example of this—see Jeremy Fox’s Brian McGill’s comments on this idea, just posted today.)

    Finally (and I know this has been a long response), it’s very interesting that you point out that you never use the word “diversity” when gaining public support. Recently, I chatted with a philosopher of science on a plane ride whose student is working on public perceptions of biodiversity, and I’ve had many conversations with members of advocacy groups and non-profits on the topic of biodiversity. Generally, the public has a positive perception of diversity: sometimes, it’s the ONLY ecological term that they are comfortable with. I think the danger comes in with the fact that diversity has, as you point out, outgrown its britches from a scientific term to a near “religion,” encompassing the innate desire to protect all forms of life to the experience of seeing a flourishing coral reef, for example. But is this such a bad thing? Why not emphasize diversity conservation if people have expressed a desire to have keep it around, even if it’s for intangible reasons and not because hard numbers show a benefit? I’m curious, since I’m not a conservationist or advocate, what is the downside?

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    Cheers, Jon

    • Excellent interview!

      I wonder to what extent the public’s positive view of ‘biodiversity’ is due to its benign influence on the majority of their lives. I’d reckon that to the majority of people in developed countries, perspectives relating to ‘biodiversity’ (or their ‘biodiverse perspectives’ har har) are forged by experiences at zoos and aquariums, and from nature documentaries. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, in a sense these are all still fabricated products being sold to us and capitalize on our ability to control and stage these interactions in a way that stresses entertainment over education.
      For a fresh perspective on this, check out the following non-open access article:

      Public perceptions of ‘nature,’ on the other hand, no doubt span a wider breadth from phobia to fanaticism and everything in-between. However, to invest time and resources advocating for ‘nature’, rather than ‘biodiversity’ seems like the correct (albeit more difficult) path to carve if we want people to become more invested in the looming environmental problems we’ll all face in the coming decades!

      • Hmm, interesting article Dave. And interesting point about the “commercialization” of biodiversity. But my earlier point was, why not use diversity as a foot-in-the-door to further educate people on global change? In other words, is biodiversity the gateway to plugging the larger points of global change? It is certainly less controversial than, say, “global warming” (I put that in quotes because that is how most citizens still think of it) and more accessible than “ocean acidification” and more immediate than “ozone depletion” (which most people probably associate with having been solved by phasing out CFCs in the 80s and 90s).

  • Jon,
    There is a place for both pure theoretical research and for problem solving. Your argument using the example of fisheries ignores the whole field of applied ecology. There are many examples, including the Kremen paper that I posted about, where when we see a loss of function or services, we have the opportunity to identify the causes and provide evidence for workable solutions. From identifying thresholds whereby fisheries become unsustainable (for instance, fishing regulations and salmon in the PNW) to uncovering the benefits that wild bees provide for agricultural yield (if we maintain habitat that supports biodiversity, we make more food and money!), we can make very real recommendations to land managers and decision makers informed by an awareness of the consequences of those decisions.

  • I’m not getting the sense that y’all are going to change the entire name and focus of this site in response to Kareiva’s comments. 😉 I’m kind of curious why not, as I do think he has a point when it comes to applied relevance of much “biodiversity science”. And contra Jon’s comment earlier, I don’t think Peter’s point here is at all addressed by just saying that there’s more to “biodiversity” than number of species. The public doesn’t care about “functional diversity” or “phylogenetic diversity” or whatever either. And the connections between most high profile diversity-function research and the sorts of things that the public does care about really are pretty tangential for the most part.

    Of course, if you want to say that most biodiversity-function research is fundamental, not applied, that’s fine–except that that’s not what people usually say in the introductions to their papers. Peter Adler did a guest post on Dynamic Ecology a while back where he said that most ecologists, including himself, are hypocrites because they justify what’s really fundamental work by virtue of its purported relevance to forecasting impacts of climate change:


    I think the same accusation–dressing up fundamental work as applied work–could be leveled at much biodiversity-function research (including some I’ve done). Would that be a fair accusation?

  • Hi Jeremy. One reason for not changing the focus is that we were seed-funded by NSF/Dimensions in Biodiversity. As long as funding is tied to a particular framework, that’s the framework that people work in, right? I think regardless of the name, we can explore both theoretical and applied aspects of science, and inevitably, works that go beyond just counting species, traits etc. One of Dr. Kareiva’s points, I think, is that there is absolutely a space for theory because we have to understand how the world (ecosystems) work in order to a) recognize “problems” and b) suggest insightful solutions. Since our audience is chiefly grad students and early career ecologists, we also see value in exploring these basic, classical, foundational concepts. My hope for all of us that want to be scientists though, is that we would ultimately do work that had “real world” applicability when the foundations exist to build on.

    • Thanks Hilary. I should’ve been a little clearer in my comment, I was kidding about you literally changing the entire focus of the site. 😉 And as you say, that’s the framework people want to work in–though of course, Peter’s point is that they *shouldn’t* want that if they’re serious about getting traction with the public, and with the businesspeople and politicians who pay attention to what the public wants.

      Anyway, I think it’s great that you’re trying to make this site a place where people can go not just to learn about foundational concepts, but to think critically about those concepts and their connections (or sometimes lack thereof!) to real-world problem solving.

  • Well , I’d change the name of the site to “Natural Perspectives” but then we would get even more spam peddling herbal remedies! 😉

    Re: Jeremy’s two points:

    (1) I would disagree that the average person doesn’t care about other types of diversity. I recently gave a public lecture to 65 lifetime learners who were alumni of Dartmouth College, and in it, I talked a little bit about current diversity research and how sometimes it doesn’t match our intuition. I gave them two examples: a community three sciaenid fishes, and a community of a sciaenid, an elasmobranch, and a pleuronectiform (ok, a fish, a shark, and a flatfish). I asked them which community they considered more diverse–of course, they said the latter. I said, but why, each has 3 species? They were able to point out variation in some of the traits that we consider when thinking about functional diversity: body size, diet, etc. and were quite enthusiastic about this view. So the public is very able to grasp these concepts, why they’re important, and why they make intuitive sense in describing “diversity.” The problem is the evidence is lacking in linking these different dimensions to functions or services of interest. But right now, that’s chiefly the domain of scientists.

    (2) Totally agree that we tend to overstate the importance of our research in solving problems. I think the issue is that funding agencies require justification for research, and now I’ve been programmed to lead everything off with that all-encompassing line “Biodiversity loss is one of the greatest drivers of global change and has widespread consequences for human well-being, etc. etc.” and end with the statement that I manipulated a bunch of tiny animals very few people can name in a 5-gallon bucket. I’m being hugely facetious, because a lot of thought goes into those species and their buckets, and they tell us very interesting things! But I will admit it has a long way to go in terms of application for the average citizen.

    Which brings me to Hillary’s comment. I didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t scenarios where ecologists can make recommendations, just that the majority of us are not trained to do so. My education has had virtually no advisory component, although my institution occupies a unique position in being mandated to provide advisory services to the state of Virginia. So while I would feel more comfortable making recommendations for thresholds, for example, based on ecological data, I would feel much more out of my element trying to make similar recommendations based on economic data. For instance, I have been doing some SeaGrant work looking at predation on juvenile bay scallops for commercial restoration purposes. I recommended seeding hatchery-reared juveniles >1 mm because rates of predation by epifaunal invertebrates decreased significantly beyond that threshold. That recommendation has practical applications for maximizing scallop survival, but the justification was ecological because, well, I’m an ecologist. But I suppose the logical next step would be to frame these data and work with an aquaculturist to maximize their potential yield. Perhaps Peter’s point is that this is where most ecologists get off the boat?

    • Fair points Jon, thanks. Though I’d quibble with your first one. Dartmouth alumni attending a lifelong learning event are a *highly* non-random sample of the public, and probably are much more likely than the average person to find any given bit of academic research interesting.

      • True, but I was surprised at the level of enthusiasm. Especially since I talked 15 minutes into their lunch time! It would be interesting to reach out to people who are polling citizens on biodiversity (perhaps TNC does this? I know that Rainforest Alliance has, and probably CI), and see what the results say (or perhaps this is what Peter was saying?). I’m just surprised because all my interactions–in and out of an academic setting–with citizens have produced a favorable view of diversity. The converse is, unfortunately, true with climate change and other topics.

  • It is hard for me to escape my day job to read this exchange, except to say it is a delight to see folks discuss issues with a sense of humor –something I sometimes find lacking in my arena, which is conservation.

    Obviously I know you cannot and should not change the website’s name—I was just chiding NSF a bit for missing the point on biodiversity. Sometimes I feel like NSF has taken a very rich topic in ecology, which is how variety and differences among ecological actors provides both what people generally love about nature and more fundamentally the resilience of ecosystems which we need in these times of environmental disruption.

    A professional scientist may appreciate the nuances of biodiversity, but the public does not—yet the public cares and responds well to nature. I the 2012 election, TNC championed 13 state bond issues that sought state funding for conservation and wild places. Remarkably, in the midst of high unemployment, 11 of those 13 state bonds won, raising over $600,000,000 for conservation. We did not tap into “biodiversity” to elicit the public support—we tapped into the joy of being in nature, the need for clean water, and the sense that landscapes were a cultural legacy.

    Sometimes I worry that biodiversity science has become mainly about cataloguing, enumerating, and counting at the expense of more dynamical approaches. We have sterilized a fascinating topic.

    Second, while there are experiments and research that establish clear and actionable links between dimensions of biodiversity and things people care about – my favorite is the Schindler group’s research on life history variety in salmon in Bristol Bay – a lot of the experiments are more “toy experiments” or “toy meta-analyses”, which are wonderfully clever—but hard to link to doing anything different using the information provided.

    Since the raison d’etre for NSF’s biodiversity initiative is ultimately the sense that biodiversity is crucial to human welfare, then why not conduct research on biodiversity that can actually be translated into benefits for people? Why not ask the question, “what might society, or agencies, or people do differently as a result of this research?”.

    And this is not an argument for only directly applied research. Metapopulation theory in its most abstract form nonetheless exposed the fallacy that the presence empty patches or pieces of habitat or blocks of old growth forest means there is a surplus of habitat. In short, the fact one can find a lot of old growth in Washington without spotted owls does not mean that old growth is in surplus for owls. Simple, elegant, and powerful.

    OK, back to my day job..and yes Dartmouth alumni surely do not qualify as the general public. I suggest you go to NASCAR and give your biodiversity lecture.

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  • {“TNC has as its mission the protection of nature and the full variety of life—and this certainly includes protecting what you would call “biodiversity”. We are very successful at gaining public support for land and water conservation. But when we do so, we never use the word biodiversity. We use the words: nature, water, health, wildlife.” ~ Karieva} I disagree with this assertion. As a long time TNC employee, I do still use “biodiversity” when discussing TNC’s work. I also realize the benefit of using more generic terms of nature, and I strive to use the appropriate terms within the appropriate audience and context — but I think it is important to keep biodiversity in our lexicon, and to continue to find compelling and meaningful ways to educate the general public to various values of “biodiversity” and resilience so that Karieva’s following sentiment does not become true. {“Sometimes I worry that biodiversity science has become mainly about cataloguing, enumerating, and counting at the expense of more dynamical approaches. We have sterilized a fascinating topic.” ~Karieva} Thank you for the dialog.

  • Hi Krista,
    I’m inclined to agree. I’ve heard a line of argument that we shouldn’t use the word biodiversity in an advocacy or public outreach context because “people” don’t like the word. What that says to me is that we’ve done a poor job of giving meaning to it…so it’s not the word that’s the problem but the way we convey the message.

  • I enjoyed reading this interview with Peter, and I have great respect for his lifelong contributions to research as well as his service through the TNC. But I found myself in disagreement with a number of statements he made. For example, Peter suggests ecologists should stop quantifying how aspects of biodiversity such as species richness impact ecological functions. He argues these functions have little bearing on human well-being, and that we need to focus more attention on ecosystem goods and services. He further suggests we should ‘get back to ecology’ and focus on “understanding how systems work, what controls dynamics, the role of particular species as opposed to the number of species,” and other topics he feels are important.

    In making these comments, I think Peter fails to fully appreciate two things: (1) Nearly all ecosystem goods and services that underlie human health and prosperity are themselves the product of basic ecological functions that involve production, decomposition, and recycling. It’s difficult to think of more than a handful of goods and services that do not ultimately depend on ecosystem functions; thus, if you want to understand how and why nature produces goods and services, and develop predictive mechanistic models, there is no alternative but to understand the functions first. This is the very reason why ecologists started their work focused on functions. (2) We have known since Aristotle that different organisms affect ecological functions differently. The novel thing we’ve learned over the past two decades is that variance per se matters – that is, the variety of life – not just the mean characteristics of individual species – explains more variation in ecological processes than we ever anticipated. We now know that doubling the richness of primary producer communities in grasslands, lakes, or coastal zones can double the efficiency by which communities sequester resources like C, N, and P and use those resources to produce biomass. We’ve learned that diversity can explain a large amount of the spatial variation in the productivity of forests (est. as high as 40%). And we’ve learned that the impacts of biodiversity loss on fundamental processes like biomass production rival the impacts of other drivers of global change (including increases in CO2, warming, and nutrient pollution).

    Now … certainly, I would agree with the sentiment that ecologists need to move beyond their comfort zones and do a better job of translating the ecological processes they are accustomed to measuring into response variables that have true value to humans (dollars, health, mental well-being, etc.). But we’ve got to walk before we can run. The theory of natural selection came before the neo-Darwinian revolution. The discovery of DNA came before gene therapy. And, likewise, the translation of diversity-function relationships into services will flow naturally once we’ve established the foundations.

    The nature of Peter’s comments reminds me of similar viewpoints I routinely hear from those who worked on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, or who are involved in the Natural Capital Project. Many of the leaders in these initiatives were trained as ecosystem or ‘systems’ ecologists in the 1950’s – 70’s, and quite a number of these are content to group organisms into very course scales of organization (e.g., different types of biomes). Many have expressed to me that these coarse scales of organization offer the greatest explanatory power, and that finer scales – such as dividing biology into the finer level of species or genes – lead to diminishing returns (large efforts in data collection and modeling for little additional explanation). However, this view reminds me of what Jeremy Fox calls “Zombie ideas in Ecology” – old dogma that is inconsistent with the best available data, but which just can’t seem to die. The balance of evidence now clearly shows that the variety of organisms and biological traits in an ecosystem has large impact on how that ecosystem functions, and can explain substantial fractions of variation in many of the processes we care to quantify. It’s time to let such zombie ideas die, and move towards a more accurate understanding of nature.

  • To participate in this citizen science project, you first need to go to the website for FrogWatch and select your province, and then click the How To FrogWatch link in the menu. Then you’ll be presented with instructions specific to your area. In Ontario, for example, frogs and toads are active between March and August, and the site suggests that you monitor from spring in your area until about June. All you need to do is listen for them once or twice a week, and then fill in and submit a FrogWatch observation form . You’ll report on roughly how many frogs you hear, and when you hear them.

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