Ecology consists of a large number of theoretical constructs, empirical patterns and methods. This means that applied ecology can draw from a diverse pool of ideas and methods when exploring practical problems. Different subfields of applied ecology – including pest control, conservation, and wildlife management – all deal with the management of biological populations, and should therefore rest on the same ecological foundations. But is this really the case? We study this issue by analyzing recent citation rates (2010–2014) in basic and applied ecology journals to more than 130 highly cited, classic papers and books, covering a wide range of subjects. To this end, we use ordination methods, clustering and classify publications into broad topics.
We find a clear clustering of journals, where conservation biology and spatial ecology occupies another part of the ordination space than biocontrol and pest control. Classifying papers into broad topics reveals that the ordination patterns are driven by striking differences in how often ecological concepts are used in different subfields. While some patterns are easy to understand, e.g. the use of biodiversity concepts in conservation, others are left unexplained. For instance, the lack of spatial concepts and competition in pest control, predation in conservation journals, and foodweb ideas in wildlife journals are harder to understand. Microbial ecology also appears devoid of large parts of ecological theory. We also analyze how frequently topics are mentioned in abstracts in different journals, which confirm our results and indicate that the patters we see are not due to the specific selection of references, but rather reflect how theoretical concepts are used in different areas of ecology.
These patterns imply distinct divides within ecology, where subfields selectively use certain parts of ecological theory. Therefore, we argue that work in applied ecology would benefit from broader theoretical perspectives. Collaboration and inspiration across sub-disciplines could be one way to achieve this, perhaps inspiring novel research directions.