Australian vs. North American ecological research: Contrasting environmental influences
In 1961, HG Andrewartha (Australian) defined ecology as the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of organisms, and analyzed these in light of landscape-scale abiotic factors (eg, soils, water) with less importance given to the biotic interactions. In the 1970s, Charles Krebs (North American, NA) defined ecology as the scientific interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. Through the 1970s and 1980s, most NA ecologists working on density-dependent phenomena, such as competition or predation, found the Andrewartha density-independent approach unhelpful, and vice versa, and that view continues largely today. These differences in approaches to ecological thought are influenced by differences in the environments of the two continents: Australia is a flat, sparsely-inhabited, infertile brown land with green “holes”; biota are challenged by their ability to withstand extreme environments; whereas NA is mainly a fertile green land (with brown “holes”) where biotic interactions are paramount. The ecological and geological histories of Australia have produced a biota unlike any other continent. Australian precipitation patterns are among the most variable (and unpredictable) on Earth, and such variability has had profound effects on the evolution of Australian plants and animals, population dynamics, and the interactions that create ecological communities.
Analyses of research publications in major journals from 1960 – 2010 illustrate the historical dichotomy. Australian research publications and citations are remarkably devoid of theoretical ecology and mathematical ecology; indeed, historically, these subjects were often treated with disinterest, or even disdain. One complaint from Australians has been that ecological theory and models from NA “just don’t work” in the Australian context. For example, with regard to competition theory, often there is not enough time for populations to reach sufficient numbers that density-dependent effects should appear before some abiotic landscape-scale event (fire, flood, drought, cyclone) occurs instead, reducing numbers drastically. Such crashes due to abiotic events have been recorded over decades in some populations of mammals, birds, and even insects. More recently, theoretical ecology has begun to be adapted to, and/or developed in, Australia, much centered on unpredictability of resources and landscape-scale abiotic factors. Field research is strong, often focusing on invasive species, alpha taxonomy, water resources, biological surveys, and population and ecosystem monitoring. Fire ecology research is some of the best in the world. Current computer modelling and mapping of Australia ecosystems, the development of scenarios with changing climate, and landscape and conservation planning are also very strong.