Early Ecological Studies

The study of fossils led some naturalists to conclude that many species known only as fossils must have become extinct. However, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck argued in his Philosophie zoologique (1809; Zoological Philosophy, 1914) that fossils represented the early stages of species that evolved into different species that were still living. In order to refute this claim, geologist Charles Lyell mastered the science of biogeography and used it to argue that species do become extinct and that competition from other species seemed to be the main cause. English naturalist Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) blends his own researches with the influence of Linnaeus and Lyell in order to argue that some species do become extinct, but existing species have evolved from earlier ones. Lamarck had underrated and Lyell had overrated the importance of competition in nature.

Although Darwin's book was an important step toward ecological science, he and his colleagues mainly studied evolution rather than ecology. However, German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel realized the need for an ecological science and coined the name oecologie in 1866. It was not until the 1890's that steps were actually taken to organize this science. Virtually all of the early ecologists were specialists in the study of particular groups of organisms, and it was only in the late 1930's that some efforts were made to write textbooks covering all aspects of ecology. Since the 1890's, most ecologists have viewed themselves as plant ecologists, animal ecologists, marine biologists, or limnologists. Limnology is the study of freshwater aquatic environments.

Nevertheless, general ecological societies were established. The first was the British Ecological Society, which was founded in 1913 and began publishing the Journal of Ecology in the same year. Two years later ecologists in the United States and Canada founded the Ecological Society of America, which began publishing Ecology as a quarterly journal in 1920; in 1965 Ecology began appearing bimonthly. Other national societies have since been established. More specialized societies and journals also began appearing. For example, the Limnologi-cal Society of America was established in 1936 and expanded in 1948 into the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography. It publishes the journal Limnology and Oceanography.

Although Great Britain and Western Europe were active in establishing the study of ecological sciences, it was difficult for their trained ecologists to obtain full-time employment that utilized their expertise. European universities were mostly venerable institutions with fixed budgets; they already had as many faculty positions as they could afford, and these were all allocated to the older arts and sciences. Governments employed few, if any, ecolo-gists. The situation was more favorable in the United States, Canada, and Australia, where universities were still growing. In the United States, the universities that became important for ecological research and the training of new ecologists were mostly in the Midwest. The reason was that eastern universities were similar to European ones in being well established, with scientists in traditional fields.

Ecology After 1950

Ecological research in the United States was not well funded until after World War II. With the advent of the Cold War, science was suddenly considered important for national welfare. In 1950 the U.S. Congress established the National Science Foundation, and ecologists were able to make the case for their research along with that of the other sciences. The Atomic Energy Commission had already begun to fund ecological researches by 1947, and under its patronage the Oak Ridge Laboratory and the University of Georgia gradually became important centers for radiation ecology research.

Another important source of research funds was the International Biological Program (IBP), which, though international in scope, depended upon national research funds. It got under way in the United States in 1968 and was still producing publications in the 1980's. Even though no new funding sources were created for the IBP, its existence meant that more research money flowed to ecologists than otherwise would have.

Ecologists learned to think big. Computers became available for ecological research shortly before the IBP got under way, and so computers and the IBP became linked in ecologists' imaginations. Earth Day, established in 1970, helped awaken Americans to the environmental crisis. The IBP encouraged a variety of studies, but in the United States, studies of biomes (large-scale environments) and ecosystems were most prominent. The biome studies were grouped under the headings of desert, eastern deciduous forest, western coniferous forest, grassland, and tundra (a proposed tropical forest program was never funded). Although the IBP has ended, a number of the biome studies continued at a reduced level.

Ecosystem studies are also large-scale, at least in comparison with many previous ecological studies, though smaller in size than a biome. The goal of ecosystem studies was to gain a total understanding of how an ecosystem—such as a lake, river valley, or forest—works. IBP funds enabled students to collect data, which computers processed. However, ecologists could not agree on what data to collect, how to compute outcomes, and how to interpret the results. Therefore, thinking big did not always produce impressive results.

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