Ecologists deploy the same tools of scientific inquiry that other scientists use - observation, questioning, inductive and deductive logic, comparison, and experimentation. However, the idiosyncrasy and complexity of ecological systems present special challenges that make certain tools particularly important. One of these important tools is natural history.
Natural history has multiple meanings. It can be thought of as an action — the observation of nature outside of a formal, hypothesis-testing investigation. Alternatively, it can be thought of as the body of reliable facts about the many components of an ecological system, their interactions, and the environmental context of those interactions. Natural history facts can result from systematic or anecdotal natural history observation, or from results of experiments.
Natural history is fundamental to virtually all stages of ecological inquiry. Often natural history observations provide the source of new questions and natural history knowledge is critical for the formulation of hypotheses as well as for the design of robust scientific studies to test them.
Advances in biology have been facilitated by intensive study of a few model organisms that are familiar to any student of biology. These model organisms, which include as the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, the mustard Arabidopsis thaliana, the zebrafish Danio rerio, as well as various microbes, represent a tiny fraction of the diversity of life. Nonetheless, they have yielded broad insights about how organisms are put together and how they function.
Because populations, communities, and ecosystems are not related by common descent as organisms are, it may seem that model ecosystems have less potential to provide broad insights than model organisms into how biological systems are put together and how they function. But while there may be no “representative” ecosystems, all of them are shaped by common geological, climatological, ecological, and evolutionary processes, and ecosystems that are shaped by similar environments show convergent properties. Thus, RMBL’s ecosystems can serve as “models” that inform our understanding of ecosystems elsewhere.
RMBL scientists have produced a wealth of natural history information about several core components of RMBL’s ecosystems. They have adopted two approaches to understanding how these systems are put together and how they function. In one approach, a single focal species is used to leverage understanding either of ecological interactions among species in the larger community or interactions of species with the abiotic environment. In another approach, the properties of groups of species inhabiting a specific landscape component - such as stream insects, or meadow plants - are the focus of study. Both approaches have proved fruitful.
The section on model ecosystems is adapted from: