Ecologists seek to explain observations using models of processes, which we also call theory. Yet many ecological phenomena remain difficult to understand because their current state reflects surprises - events that were not anticipated or captured. In these cases, short-term results yield false conclusions about the factors responsible for population or community patterns. At least two challenges attend the study of ecological surprises. A focused and question-driven study is essential to provide the context needed to recognize a surprise. Reliable long-term funding is necessary to capture a surprise that wasn’t forecast, predicted, or expected. When a series of random events may best explain what we observe, the disparate nature of these events may make forecasting difficult.
The National Science Foundation’s Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program meets many of challenges that face contemporary ecologists; the ability to recognize ecological surprises and their ramifications is not afforded through core or other special programs. Investigators must have studied an ecological process for at least 6 years, thereby gaining sufficient familiarity to recognize a surprise or an erratic event. A decade or more of support may be provided, allowing researchers to distinguish between unexpected surprises and predictable disturbances, and to identify their ramifications. LTREB research has been tremendously productive, documenting the importance of ecological surprises in diverse habitats and thus notably advancing understanding of ecological patterns and processes. Several examples will be presented in this symposium. Results raise provocative questions: are surprises different from legacy effects or disturbances? Is non-equilibrium theory adequate to characterize ecological surprises, or do we need a new framework that includes the waiting time between such events and the disparate nature of events in a series? What distinguishes ecological surprises from other forms of environmental stochasticity? Are there commonalities across habitats, organisms, or studies? LTREB data and research can be synthesized to begin to address these questions.