OOS 16-1 - Hot springs, bulldozers and tussocks: Terry Chapin’s early career contributions to plant physiological ecology, and the legacy of “the mineral nutrition of wild plants”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012: 1:30 PM
A107, Oregon Convention Center
Gaius R. Shaver, Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK and Joseph M. Craine, Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS

            Where do new ideas in ecology come from?  When Terry Chapin completed his Ph.D. (Stanford 1973), he had been trained as an ecophysiologist in the tradition of HA Mooney (his major advisor) and WD Billings, two of the leaders who helped establish this field during the 1960s.   The subject of his dissertation was physiological “acclimation” of phosphorus uptake by plant roots in different temperature regimes, an elegant study of precise adaptation both within and among species, to environments that differed in average temperature and temperature variability. During the 1970s, as Terry established his own research in tundra and boreal ecosystems of Alaska, he was strongly influenced by two then current intellectual trends in ecology.  One of these was the increasing use of the ecosystem context as a framework for interpreting and evaluating process-level studies such as Terry’s work on nutrient uptake.  Another was a shift in focus of ecophysiology, away from an emphasis on narrow adaptation of individual plant traits to specific environments, and toward a new emphasis on interaction of multiple plant traits and multiple environmental controls to determine overall plant functioning in communities and ecosystems.  Terry was fortunate to be working as part of two “Biome” studies, part of the International Biological Program, with access to a rich array of ecosystem-level data that provided context for his work on P and N uptake and P and N budgets of both tundra and boreal forest. 


The result of this fortunate conjunction of person and opportunity was a brilliant series of syntheses, starting with Terry's most widely-cited paper, “The Mineral Nutrition of Wild Plants”, published in 1980 in Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics and cited over 2000 times by 2012. MNWP argued that nutrient limitation and nutrient allocation in wild plants are important selective forces with major impacts on how whole ecosystems function. It also argued for an approach to understanding of plant growth, distribution and abundance, and of the role of plants in ecosystems, as resulting from interactions among multiple controls and limiting factors rather than dominance by any single factor.  These ideas, expressed in a way that stimulated ecologists and their students around the world to think differently about their work, have led to countless new insights and have contributed significantly to development of ecological theory on the relationships among diversity, plant traits, ecosystem function, and community response to global change.