Foundations for Advancing Animal Ecology

In Foundations for Advancing Animal Ecology, authors Michael L. Morrison, Leonard A. Brennan, Bruce G. Marcot, William M. Block, and Kevin S. McKelvey examine how wildlife professionals can modernize their approaches to habitat and population management with a fresh take on animal ecology. The following passage is an excerpt from the book.

Our purpose in writing this book was lofty—namely, providing specific recommendations on how to substantially advance our field’s approaches to studies of animal ecology. In other words, how do we maximize the probability that a species of wild animal will persist into the future? Such a goal clearly implies that, as authors, we collectively think that animal ecologists are failing to advance how we conduct research and apply that knowledge to successfully conserve wild animals. Animal ecologists are notorious for practices such as using vague and misleading terminology, taking the easy way out in designing and implementing studies, or failing to translate research findings into knowledge that natural resource managers can actually implement on the ground. It seems as though we believe that all we need is more money and additional time for more research, and everything will work out just fine. While these factors are important, what’s of even greater consequence are clear definitions of terms, rigorous study designs, and controlled experiments wherever possible.

Yes, our opening paragraph here is harsh, but it is also valid. As we recount in detail, beginning in Chapter 1, this book focuses on individual animals and how they are organized as biological populations. That is the foundation. Building our studies around vague concepts such as “animal communities” clearly inhibits our understanding of animal ecology. A misunderstanding of broader temporal-spatial relationships and differences between how humans and other animal species perceive their surroundings— the landscape—further inhibit how we approach research in animal ecology and make subsequent management recommendations. We are not the first to recognize the weaknesses in our approaches to animal ecology; we rely heavily on the writings of other scientists to make our case. Our book is, however, one of the few attempts to synthesize where we have been, where we are currently, and where we need to go with our studies of animals and their ecology.

We know that many readers will criticize us for being unrealistic, for expecting rapid and widespread changes in how we approach research design. A number of you will no doubt argue that it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to quantify the biological population of wild animals for study. We welcome criticism and suggestions on how to do so; there are certainly cutting-edge genetic approaches, for example, that deserve more examination. Most likely there are better, or certainly additional, ways to measure behavioral interactions within and among biological populations beyond those recommended in this book. What we hope happens, though we have little confidence in it actually occurring, is that the majority of readers will agree with us and start including our recommended approaches in their ongoing and future studies. As a minimal—and first—step, we need to incorporate a discussion of the biological population(s) in all of our work and critically evaluate the utility of traditional terms and definitions we have become accustomed to accepting. Once we all engage in self-evaluation of our research habits, some very smart and clever people probably will devise ways around what has been described as the “boundary problem” in studies of animal ecology (see Chapter 1).

We purposefully omitted the term “wildlife” from the title of this book, because the popular connotation of the term is restricted to terrestrial vertebrates, whereas understanding the ecology of animals pertains to all taxa. In Chapter 1, we write in more detail about what constitutes wildlife and challenge our research and management communities to think broadly, as well as to look past traditional fields of zoological study and across ecosystem boundaries, rather than defending conventional study approaches.

We are confident that this book will be an invaluable resource to professionals and practitioners in natural resource management in the public and private sectors, including state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, restorationists, and environmental consultants. We say this because the chapters provide both a review of current practices and a demonstration of how we think those practices can be substantially improved. Our intended audience also includes upper division undergraduate and graduate students in courses and graduate seminars on animal ecology, wildlife ecology, wildlife management, land-use policy, and conservation biology.

The book focuses on concepts and theories in animal ecology, terminology, evolutionary underpinnings, and the history of wildlife-habitat studies. We begin by noting that classic studies of wildlife-habitat relationships were a reasonable and fruitful way to develop general understandings of where species occurred and the general environmental conditions there. They were almost always centered on habitat descriptions based largely on vegetation conditions. Regardless of the sophistication of the field methods and statistical analyses used, these classic studies were mostly time and place specific, but they did yield a wealth of valuable natural history information. We then discuss the limitations of this approach and provide a rationale for a substantial refocus as we pursue additional knowledge on organisms and populations, as well as on how to conserve species of wild animals. We also provide a final chapter that circles back to our major theme—the biological population and boundary identification—as we provide guidance on how to place any study in the overall context of co-occurring animal populations and the environment. We offer this material as a road map for advancing how we study animals, which will substantially enhance the way in which we communicate among scientists and practitioners alike. A key here is communication between researchers and managers. Researchers must understand management objectives; managers must understand and embrace the information needed to move forward to meet those objectives.

In a forthcoming (2021) companion volume on applications, we will emphasize study design, including experimental approaches; where, when, and how to gather measurements for the study of animal ecology; measurements of behavior (behavioral ecology); modeling approaches; and an ending chapter on recommended future approaches in animal ecology. It also stands alone as a guide for practicing professionals as well as university students at all levels, if they have taken any general course in animal ecology. It is unique, however, in that it uses the concepts of the animal populations we emphasize in the present book.

Some of the topics we have included were previously developed in Wildlife-Habitat Relationships: Concepts and Applications (Morrison, Marcot, and Mannan 2006). There, we did touch on some of the themes that are expanded upon in this book, such as the need for clarity in terminology—most essentially, a clear working definition of habitat. Since that earlier book was written, however, greater exigencies for effective conservation have arisen. Science and management, now more than ever, need to find new approaches and partnerships, particularly in the face of accelerating climate change, large-scale disturbances, the degradation and fragmentation of natural areas, and a growing awareness of such major problems as increases in the illegal animal trade and the massive befoulment of entire ecosystems from discarded plastics. Our new effort in this book draws on additional years of thought, discussion, and our own field studies, driven largely by the realization that advancing animal ecology—and conservation itself—demands a fresh approach, a new perspective, and a return to the basics of understanding organisms in this rapidly changing global environment.

Michael L. Morrison is a professor and the Caesar Kleberg Chair in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife, and Fisheries Management at Texas A&M University. He is the coauthor of Ornithology: Foundation, Analysis, and Application. Leonard A. Brennan is a research scientist and the C. C. Winn Endowed Chair for Quail Research Professor at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Texas A&M University–Kingsville. He is the coeditor of Quantitative Analyses in Wildlife Science. Bruce G. Marcot is a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, and the coauthor of Wildlife-Habitat Relationships: Concepts and Applications. William M. Block is scientist emeritus with the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. He is the coauthor of Wildlife Study Design. Kevin S. McKelvey is a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. He is the coauthor of Ecology and Conservation of Lynx in the United States. Together, Morrison, Brennan, Marcot, Block, and McKelvey are the authors of Foundations for Advancing Animal Ecology.

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