Origins of an ecological mongrel

Some papers are written on a whim; others mark the completion of a huge programme of field work or the solution of a complex problem. And some are more existential, marking an emotional transition, almost a rite of passage. The couple of thousand words I’ve just published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution falls into this latter category, which perhaps explains why I’m so excited to see it come out. Of course, just seeing my name in TREE is pretty cool in and of itself – TREE’s been a consistently reliable, entertaining and useful read since my undergrad days (somewhere around vol 8, I reckon) and I think that even many of those who vehemently dislike its parent publishing company maintain a soft spot for it. So, it’s a bit of a thrill to see my work published there. (OK, I’ve published there before, but in a more destructive role; this new one is rather more constructive I hope!)

But more than that, this paper feels like a validation of opinions that I’ve developed over a long time. In the paper, I argue that the separate intellectual development of marine and terrestrial ecological research has been to the detriment of both, and I make some suggestions (in particular in the fields of community ecology and macroecology) where I think greater cross-realm synthesis is likely to be especially fruitful. This is something I’ve been banging on about for a while, and having written this piece I sort of wondered why I hadn’t done so five years ago (it wouldn’t have been as good then, but would have been gathering citations…) But given that nobody else wrote it in the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to examine what it is about my background that has turned me into this sort of mongrel marine-terrestrial ecologist.

My first stroke of luck was in doing my undergraduate degree at UEA in the mid 90s. At that time, the ecology syllabus was partly delivered by excellent terrestrial ecologists like Bill Sutherland, Andrew Watkinson and Bob James; but also by John Reynolds and Isabelle Côté, both of whom worked primarily on marine systems but were fully integrated into the ecological ‘mainstream’. It was natural then to learn the fundamentals of population ecology using primarily fisheries case studies, or to focus on marine protected areas in conservation lectures. Spending a year at the Centre d’Oceanologie de Marseille certainly helped; and on returning to UEA, I was able to take advantage of the close links that John had forged with CEFAS to finish my degree with a marine flourish. It never really occurred to me that marine and terrestrial ecology ought to be separated.

Then chance events took me back towards terrestrial ecology – I was interviewed for a PhD in marine ecology at the British Antarctic Survey, which I didn’t get; and for one in terrestrial macroecology at Sheffield, which I did. So I spent the next 8-9 years of PhD and post-doc work gradually working my way up within the ecological mainstream, with always in the back of my mind the idea that I’d like to apply some of this stuff to marine systems one day. At one point I was interviewed by Simon Jennings for a post at CEFAS. That post went to some bloke called Dulvy (whatever happened to him?). But in rejecting me, Simon advised me that if I wanted to work in marine systems my best bet in the meantime was to do the best ecology (and work with the best ecologists) that I could, and not to worry too much about the specifics of whether it was wet or dry.

My advice to you: if Simon Jennings offers you advice, listen to it. It will be wise. So after some twists and turns this strategy led me to a short post-doc with Dave Raffaelli at York. Now although that specific post had nothing to do with marine ecology, as I got talking to Dave we sort of mutually realised that we were on the same page when it came to not seeing a massive divide between marine and terrestrial systems. I guess Dave was influenced by working for such a long time on the Ythan estuary: essentially a marine ecosystem, subject to tides and so on, but with terrestrial management regimes playing an equally profound role in its ecology.

One thing led to another and I found myself first coauthoring a paper with Dave and Martin Solan called ‘Do marine and terrestrial ecologists do it differently?’, part of a Theme Section in MEPS aimed at Bridging the gap between aquatic and terrestrial ecology (link to OA PDF); and then attending (at Dave’s instigation) a MarBEF workshop in Oslo trying to work out what we should do with the newly-assembled huge dataset on European marine invertebrate distributions and abundances. This workshop was hosted by John Gray. John – who has very sadly since died – had something of a reputation for not being the easiest of characters; but to me he was extremely kind, generous and encouraging, and I suddenly saw an opportunity for doing some macroecological research on a marine system.

So Dave and I put together an application to NERC to do some macroecology on the MarBEF dataset. I found out the week before Christmas that it hadn’t been funded, and with my contract due to run out at the end of December things looked grim. But I managed to wangle a move back to Sheffield to work with Rob Freckleton while I tried to turn the grant application into fellowship material. First the Leverhulme Trust then, eventually, the Royal Society decided that my ideas weren’t so silly after all. I like to think that this new TREE paper marks the end of my transition into an ecological mongrel, with one wet and one dry foot.

Webb, TJ (2012) Marine and terrestrial ecology: unifying concepts, revealing differences. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2012.06.002