Decades of place-based, long-term ecological research have generated important insights into patterns and processes in different types of ecological systems. These data and accumulated knowledge provide an unprecedented opportunity for testing general ecological theories through networked synthesis. This synthesis will be particularly powerful as data generated from expanding national and international observatory networks are integrated with discoveries from long-term ecological research. Synthesis is a grand challenge to the discipline of ecology, as big data are rapidly collected at multiple spatiotemporal scales, reinforcing the need for frameworks that derive from generalizable ecological theory. The U.S. Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network was inspired in-part by E. P. Odum’s ‘strategy of ecosystem development’, yet there hasn’t been an explicit effort to synthesize how long-term ecological data inform this core theory. After nearly four decades of LTER and more recent global expansion of ecological observatories, we return to Odum's (1969) theory to reveal long-term support, discoveries, and deficiencies in theoretical predictions of developing ecosystems.
This effort is a heuristic tool aimed to guide collection and integration of data to test theory. Long-term ecological research networks and observatories must unite around a common goal of understanding complexity at scales not previously measurable and consequences of unprecedented rates of change in environmental conditions not present at the time particular theories were developed. When considering discoveries from across the U.S. LTER Network through this theoretical framework of developing ecosystems, the drivers of land use and land cover change and human-environment interactions explain patterns in ecosystem attributes of developing systems. Finally, by revisiting Odum (1969) through the lens of long-term ecological research, we highlight how LTER enhances understanding of variance in the trajectory of spatiotemporal change within and among ecosystems.