In my previous post ‘Reading the Classics’ I spoke about the first meeting of the foundations of ecology reading group (FERG) I helped set up at the Fenner School. The group has now been meeting monthly for a year, so it’s about time for an update!

We had a lot of interest from the start, and about 15 actually turned up to the first meeting which was more than I had expected. At the end of our first meeting, we asked everyone to complete a survey on what they would like to read in the future. From a list of authors and topics, we asked how familiar people were with each one and how interested they were in reading it. We also put together a list of papers, and asked people to choose which ones they would most like to read. The most interesting result was just how few of the authors and topics people were aware of, let alone had actually read! I think this really shows how important it is that we have a group like this.

Challenging the status-quo – ‘schools of thought’ and controversy in the literature

One of the things I have found most interesting is learning about the authors’ backgrounds and relationships, and the context around each paper. While many of the concepts are taught in undergraduate courses, we are rarely taught who the authors were, where they came from, and the ‘schools of thought’ that they were part of (I believe this may differ depending on the university you go to, but it was certainly lacking in my education). Many of the papers we have read were challenging the status-quo, making them quite controversial at the time. There were even some arguments between authors being played out in the literature (which at times can get quite nasty but certainly makes for interesting reading!).

The best example of this was the famous ‘balance of nature’ debate between Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin on one side, and Ehrlich and Birch on the other. In the original 1960 paper, Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin (referred to as HSS) introduced the concept of trophic cascades or the ‘green world hypothesis’ – the idea that herbivores are prevented from eating everything because their populations are limited by predators. In 1967 Ehrlich and Birch responded to this by accusing HSS of arguing for the ‘balance of nature’, the idea that ecosystems naturally tend towards a stable equilibrium and which has been largely discredited. We actually read the Ehrlich and Birch paper first, not understanding the broader context, and it was not until we read the original HSS paper (and their later response) that we realised that was not really what they were arguing at all! It was really fascinating to see this debate play out and get a better understanding of the evolution of ideas at the time.

Wisdom of the elders

One of the things that has worked really well so far has been inviting ‘guest’ academics to come along and present a paper, either one of their own or something that was particularly influential to their own thinking and research.

We invited Malcolm Gill (a fellow at the Fenner School who has recently retired) to present his 1975 paper ‘Fire and the Australian Flora’, which introduced the idea of fire regimes as a combination of fire severity, type and frequency. One of the great things about having the author present their own paper was getting a real understanding of the context at the time it was published. The story of how Malcolm’s paper was published says a lot about how the world of science has changed since the early 70s (or in some cases hasn’t changed at all!). At the time he had just started a position at the CSIRO and was required to write a review as part of his three year probation. He submitted it to Australian Forestry, as the forestry industry were the only people really interested in fire. However fire was viewed mainly as a threat or a management tool, and Malcolm’s suggestion that it was an important ecological process was somewhat controversial. After submitting to the journal Malcolm heard nothing for over a year, until as chance had it the editor of the journal gave him a lift home one day. The paper had just been sitting on the editor’s desk all that time, put in the ‘too hard pile’. After that the paper was finally published, and has since been cited over 280 times!

Sue McIntyre, a plant ecologist at CSIRO (and one of my supervisors), chose to present a paper that had been very influential for her as a young researcher – Gleason’s ‘Individualistic concept of the plant association’. We invited Pat Werner (who has also helped to organise the group) to present two of her own papers on seedling establishment that have become citation classics. Saul Cunningham (the new director of the Fenner School) and Phil Gibbons also kindly agreed to present papers that had been important in their own thinking. In our most recent session we also had a post-doc Claire Foster present a paper that she found influential in her PhD research, and I hope we can get more post-docs to contribute. It was really fantastic to have the opportunity to learn from both late- and early-career researchers and get their perspectives on these important papers.

What works and what doesn’t? 

Personally, I have really enjoyed the group so far and found it very rewarding. It has certainly encouraged me to read papers I would not otherwise have read, and I have learned something valuable from each one – even when the topic did not seem obviously relevant to me. I have also found the discussions really interesting and helpful, and a great way to get to know other students.

Although the group had great turnouts at the first few meetings, attendance dwindled towards the end of the year. This may just be because people were away doing field work or busy, but I also think groups like this tend to go down the priority list over time. I have noticed that longer papers or those that are maths heavy seem to scare people off, and although we encourage people to come even if they haven’t read the whole paper, I think people are less inclined to come when they don’t feel prepared. I hope that we can find some new ways to encourage people to come and keep the group going, perhaps including some more recent papers and getting more people to be guest presenters. Any suggestions from others who have run a similar group would be much appreciated!

Here is a list of the papers we have read so far, for anyone who is interested in reading them or starting a group of your own. We usually have one focus paper, and sometimes optional extra papers that complement the main paper either by giving more context, an alternate view, or a more recent perspective. We are working from this list (put together by Pat Werner), with a few more recent additions. I also highly recommend ‘Foundations of Ecology’ (edited by Leslie Real and James Brown), which has 40 of the most influential ecology papers along with very useful commentary. For a fun and simple explanation of some of the papers you should also check out this series of animated videos produced by Ecomotion studios.

  • 1926. Gleason, H. A. The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 53: 7-26.
  • 1948. Birch, L. C. The Intrinsic Rate of Natural Increase of an Insect Population. Journal Animal Ecology 17: 15-26.
  • 1955. Kettlewell. H. B. D. Selection Experiments on Industrial Melanism in the Lepidoptera. Heredity 9: 323-242.
  • 1960. Hairston, N. G., Smith F. E. and Slobodkin L. B. Community Structure, Population Control, and Competition. American Naturalist 94: 421-425.
  • 1963. MacArthur, R. H. and Wilson, E. O. An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evolution 17(4): 373-387.
  • 1964. MacArthur, R. H. and Levins, R. Competition, Habitat Selection, and Character Displacement in a Patchy Environment. Proceedings National Academy Science 51: 1207-1210.
  • 1966. MacArthur, R. H. and Pianka, E. R. On Optimal Use of a Patchy Environment. The American Naturalist 100: 603-609
  • 1966. Paine, R. T. Food Web Complexity and Species Diversity. American Naturalist 100: 65-75.
  • 1967. Ehrlich, P. R. and LC Birch. The ‘Balance of Nature’ and ‘Population Control’. American Naturalist 101: 97-107.
  • 1971. Schoener, T. W. Theory of Feeding Strategies. Ann. Rev. Ecol & Sysematics 2: 369-404.
  • 1975. Gill, A. M. Fire and the Australian Flora: A Review. Australian Forestry 35: 4-25.
  • 1976. Werner, P. A. Ecology of plant populations in successional environments. Systematic Botany, 1(3): 246-468.
  • 1982. Gross, K. L. and Werner, P. A. Colonizing abilities of “biennial” plant species in relation to ground cover: Implications for their distributions in a successional sere. Ecology, 63(4): 921-931.
  • 1988. Milchunas, D. G., Sala, O. E. and Lauenroth, W. K. A Generalized Model of the Effects of Grazing by Large Herbivores on Grassland Community. The American Naturalist 132(1): 87-106
  • 2007. Orians, G. H. and Milewski, A. V. Ecology of Australia: the effects of nutrient-poor soils and intense fires. Biological Reviews, 82: 393–423.