Is There Progress in Wetland Ecology?

In 2010 I was invited to give a 40-minute presentation to a symposium of the Society of Wetland Scientists.  I decided to speak about the difficulties we have in drawing general conclusions that apply to wetlands as a whole.  That is, we have a tendency to look at the world as a set of special cases rather than a set of phenomena guided by a small number of general principles.  Of course, without general principles, there is no science.  Hence the title. The abstract follows.

Read more about the talk

I am deeply indebted to the late Gary Pierce who organized the symposium, encouraged me to attend, arranged the recording of the session, and ensured that it was posted online.

Looking back and looking ahead: Is there progress in wetland ecology?

Where are we going in wetland ecology? What should be our priorities, as individual scholars and as a research community?

From one perspective, directionality and progress are just not an issue. We collect information on wetlands, and we meet occasionally to tell each other entertaining stories about wetlands. From the other perspective, progress is the only issue. We have no need to write or speak unless we have something to report that advances us toward a specific target. I am clearly in the latter camp. That is to say, I think that science, and wetland ecology, must have a trajectory. We can uncover our trajectory by deliberately looking back. We can strengthen our trajectory by consciously looking ahead.

Looking back, there are key realizations. Wetlands have a distinctive biota. The biota has shared traits. Flooding creates hypoxic soils. Peat often accumulates. Nutrient gradients and disturbance regimes modify effects of flooding …. And so on. (These ideas are associated with names like Lavoisier, Pearsall, Penfound, Tansley, Salisbury, Laing, Sculthorpe, Clements, Dansereau and Odum.)

Looking ahead, there are important objectives. (1) We need the ability to predict flood regimes, and which sets of species and processes will arise under those regimes. (2) We need explicit rules for how secondary effects (like fertility, disturbance, and grazing) further control species composition. We could call the former “predictive ecology” and the latter “assembly rules”. These remain the central challenges of our field.