The thermodynamic theory of ecology

Veronique Greenwood writes: Ecologists study the connections between species and their environment, traditionally through detailed observations of the natural world. They might penetrate far into a rainforest, learning the calls of birds one by one until they identify one they’ve never heard before. They might, as Harte does, monitor a single meadow for decades, becoming deeply versed in the details of each creature’s existence. Many are also interested in high-level, abstract questions, such as how birds first began to flock. But the field is rooted in a kind of natural history.

Macroecology deals with patterns that might be universal across ecosystems. When the field arose in the 1970s, ecologists tried to model the environment as a well-oiled machine that, given enough time, would settle into certain patterns. Yet when it became clear how much messier the real world is than those models, the field went quiet. “We were trying to answer bigger questions than our data could support,” said William Kunin, a professor of ecology at University of Leeds in the U.K. who watched the field evolve as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, macroecology rose again, driven by the need to understand the effects of mass deforestation, climate change and other large-scale changes in the environment. “We’re in a situation where there are big global-scale trends in species distributions, in climates, in fertilization of the planet. We’re doing big things to the world,” said Kunin, who now does macroecology work. “And policymakers want from us answers of what that will do to biodiversity.” Vanessa Weinberger, a doctoral student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile who has interned with [John] Harte [who has developed what he calls the maximum entropy (MaxEnt) theory of ecology], adds: “What these people started to do was to try to come up with laws of ecology.” [Continue reading…]

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