Foundation Papers

I was musing recently on the papers that have had made the biggest impression on me at various points in my career. Although we might all agree on a selection of ‘classic’ papers in any one discipline, those which have been most formative for me constitute a very personal selection. Timing, I realised, was everything: some papers just hit my desk at a very opportune moment. I’ve published this list in the British Ecological Society’s Bulletin, but invite you to add comments and suggestions here. I’ll pass suitable ecological ones over to the Bulletin editor. Kunin, W.E. & K.J. Gaston 1993. The biology of rarity: patterns, causes and consequences. TREE 8: 298-301
As a fresh-faced ecology graduate from UEA, I found my first gainful employment as a research assistant to John Reynolds, collating data on life history correlates of rarity and extinction risk in European freshwater fish. One day, John passed me Bill and Kevin’s book on The Biology of Rarity, which seemed particularly relevant to the task, containing as it did a series of papers on the biological differences between rare and common species. When I saw advertised a PhD, with Kevin and Bill, on Evolutionary Causes and Consequences of Rarity, well – it seemed almost rude not to apply. I did, I got it, and a mere dozen years later here I am. The book was spawned from this earlier review article, so you could say this started it all.

Jablonski, D. 1987. Heritability at the species level: analysis of geographic ranges of Cretaceous mollusks. Science 238: 360-363
This had a profound influence on me, despite – or more accurately, because – of the fact that I disagree with it in several key respects. Jablonski uses data on the distribution of fossil molluscs to show that having a large geographic range size influences the lifespan of a species, in terms of its duration in the fossil record. More contentiously, he also claims that geographic range is, in effect, heritable at the species level, based on what looked to me like very dubious relationships between the range sizes of ancestor and descendant species. Exploring this scepticism vastly expanded my understanding of both statistics and geographic ranges. It also added the ‘Ph’ into my PhD, as I delved into the philosophy of hierarchical theories of natural selection. I still think he was wrong about range size heritability, but am grateful that this paper pushed me to find out why.

Freckleton, R.P., J.A. Gill, D. Noble & A.R. Watkinson 2005. Large-scale population dynamics, abundance-occupancy relationships and the scaling from local to regional population size. J Animal Ecology 74: 353-364.
The impact of this paper on me is two-fold. First, after the first decade or so of macroecology had proved so successful at identifying patterns and relationships emergent at large spatial scales, there was a risk of the field stagnating into a series of scatter plots with straight lines forced through great clouds of points. The BES symposium organised in 2002 by Kevin Gaston and Tim Blackburn provided the impetus for a flurry of new thinking, epitomised I think by Rob’s paper. It is difficult to say whether it is downscaling macroecology, by delving into the population-dynamic mechanisms driving the abundance-occupancy relationship; or upscaling population biology, by depicting its large-scale consequences. Either way, the theoretical basis presented here opens the door to a more predictive macroecology. The second, more prosaic reason for including this paper: Rob’s thinking about these issues coincided with me looking for a job; the ideas presented here led to an important post-doctoral position for me.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. TREE 10: 430.
At just a single page, this is the shortest paper in my selection; but it seems to me more important with every passing year. There are two key messages: first, that if we judge the ‘natural’ state of an ecosystem as that which we remember from our youth, then the ‘baseline’ of what, collectively, we think of as ‘pristine’ will shift over the generations. Jared Diamond later coined the term ‘creeping normalcy’ to describe the same phenomenon, but Pauly was there first (and with a more elegant term!). Pauly’s second insight was that, in the absence of very long time series of ecological data, one way around the shifting baseline problem is to use anecdotal evidence. He quotes, for instance, the example of his colleague’s grandfather, who in the 1920s was irritated by the (then worthless) bluefin tuna tangling his mackerel nets set in the Kattegat – a situation that seems remarkable when, in January this year, a 342kg bluefin sold for £250,000 in Tokyo. Pauly states that “this observation is as factual as a temperature record”, which raises profound questions about the meaning of ‘data’ in historical ecology.

Jackson, J.B.C. 2001. What was natural in the coastal oceans? PNAS 98: 5411-5418.
Several people have taken Pauly’s idea and run with it, for instance Callum Roberts in his recent book, The Unnatural History of the Sea. Jeremy Jackson is one such. I’ve been fortunate to see Jackson talk on several occasions now, and he has the knack – apparent in this paper – of being both profoundly depressing and inspiring at the same time. How can one not be inspired by his evocation of the vast herds of green turtles and manatees in Central America? And yet depressed by the processes that have led to their current parlous state. In this paper, Jackson uses the kinds of anecdotes championed by Pauly, including things such as ships’ logbooks and archaeological records, and combines them with a deal of ecological understanding, some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and not inconsiderable chutzpah to tell a story of the lost riches of our coastal ecosystems. The inspiration comes from the thought that it’s not too late to recapture some of this; the marine megafauna are largely still with us.

Jennings, S. & J.L. Blanchard 2004. Fish abundance with no fishing: predictions based on macroecological theory. J Animal Ecology 73: 632-642.
Uniting the macroecology with the marine ecology covered in the previous papers, where Pauly and Jackson used anecdotes, Simon Jennings and Julia Blanchard apply some more quantitative rigour to reconstructing an idealised, unexploited North Sea fish community. By using a theoretically derived, empirically verified relationship between abundance and body mass, they are able to estimate the expected biomass of fishes of different sizes in the North Sea, in the absence of exploitation by fisheries. The statistical results are no less striking than the vivid pictures painted by Jackson: fish weighing over 4kg are well over 95% less abundant than theory predicts that they ‘should’ be, a difference entirely due to our propensity to extract, batter and eat such big fish. I really like the application of something so apparently theoretical (analysis of size spectra) to such a tangible real-world example.

So there we go: my academic life in half a dozen papers. I actually feel quite exposed, and doubtless am leaving myself open to various unfavourable judgements. Not an experiment among them, for instance – which I think just means that it tends to be the more polemical pieces that stick with me. I suspect there is little overlap between my selection, and any that you might make, but that’s kind of the point.