Natural history legacies that helped shape contemporary ecological science: Long term studies in the Flathead River-Lake ecosystem (Montana, British Columbia)
The Flathead Lake Biological Station was established in 1899 to teach ecology in a natural setting. The approach was fundamentally bottom-up and conducted in the heterogeneous mountain and valley landscape of the Crown of the Continent that includes 480 km2 Flathead Lake and its 22,000 km2 tributary river system. Ecological theories and hypothesis testing gradually were integrated, and by 1977 ecological research subsumed teaching as the primary mission. Discoveries of unique biota and hot spots of biodiversity and productivity lead to focused questions such as biophysical controls on communities and ecosystems, adaptation of organisms to environmental variation and food web responses to invasive species. Long term natural history data (e.g., species richness, abundances, life history variation, fitness) facilitated analyses and modeling of ecosystem structure and function to demonstrate vulnerability to human activities.
The discovery in 1974 that large bodied stoneflies (Insecta:Plecoptera) dominate the food webs of alluvial aquifers fed by the Flathead River lead to hypotheses about drivers of life history variation in aquatic insects and ultimately to the realization that river ecosystems are fundamentally 4-dimensional (upstream-downstream; channel to floodplain; channel to alluvial aquifer; time) and function as a shifting habitat mosaic (SHM). The SHM conceptually underscored why Flathead River flood plains are hot spots of biodiversity (70% of the regional vascular flora was documented on a single floodplain of the Middle Flathead River) and require special protection (e.g., from revetments, water abstraction and dams). Long term observations of plankton and fish communities and dynamics Flathead Lake lead to a robust understanding of nitrogen and phosphorus as stimulants of primary production and implementation of statues to limit anthropogenic nutrient loading. The 100-year legacy of overt stocking of non-native biota in Flathead Lake caused trophic cascades changing the entire lake food web and extirpating some species. Consequences in many cases were predicted which underscores the utility of contemporary ecological theory in a management context. I conclude that natural and novel (strongly human controlled) ecosystems are dynamic (non-equilibrium) and enormously complex eco-social networks in which management is strongly prone to type 1 errors owing to lack of appreciation of natural history legacies in relation to contemporary systems ecology.