Understanding and predicting ecological dynamics: are major surprises inevitable


Ecological surprises, substantial and unanticipated changes in the abundance of one or more species that result from previously unsuspected processes, are a common outcome of both experiments and observations in community and population ecology. Here, we give examples of such surprises along with the results of a survey of well‐established field ecologists, most of whom have encountered one or more surprises over the course of their careers. Truly surprising results are common enough to require their consideration in any reasonable effort to characterize nature and manage natural resources. We classify surprises as dynamic‐, pattern‐, or intervention‐based, and we speculate on the common processes that cause ecological systems to so often surprise us. A long‐standing and still growing concern in the ecological literature is how best to make predictions of future population and community dynamics. Although most work on this subject involves statistical aspects of data analysis and modeling, the frequency and nature of ecological surprises imply that uncertainty cannot be easily tamed through improved analytical procedures, and that prudent management of both exploited and conserved communities will require precautionary and adaptive management approaches.

Ecology (Concepts & Synthesis)
Mark Novak
Mark Novak
Associate Professor