Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Announcing “Eco 101”, a series of blog posts on the basics of ecology

Posted 01 Feb 2016 / 0
2016-02-01bImage of the Oxeye Daisy courtesy of Dan F. Myers via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the web seems better than it actually is. After about three decades of people adding content non-stop to the free internet, you would figure that it would be relatively easy to find well-written, accurate articles on basic concepts in ecology. But based on my experience — and web searching efforts — it is often difficult to find basic readings covering fundamental ecological concepts that I can assign to my students.

“What about Wikipedia?”, you ask.

Well, as I have expressed before, I am a big fan of Wikipedia when it is used properly. But when you go to a lot of the Wikipedia pages chronicling basic ecological concepts, you often get way more than students need. A great example of this is the page on logistic population growth. Other times, you get way less than you need. A great example of this is the page on carrying capacity. This is one of the big problems with Wikipedia: the site is often unclear about — and is very inconsistent in regards to — who the intended audience is for each entry. In essence, those who write each article on Wikipedia have their own sense of who the intended audience should be. Often that audience does not match up well with my audience, my non-major undergraduate students.

What about other dedicated ecological encyclopedia sites? Well, I have tried these and have not been especially satisfied with the results. For example, I have used the Encyclopedia of Earth site to provide my students with articles on exponential growth and carrying capacity, but I have found these sites lacking in a variety of ways. My initial inspiration for creating my first Eco 101 post on carrying capacity was inspired by how badly the Encyclopedia of Earth entry confuses the term. Although I realize this is somewhat a matter of opinion and perspective, the Encyclopedia of Earth entry suggests that any population equilibrium can represent a carrying capacity; in other words, if parasites or predators are the driver of population equilibration in their host or prey, that equilibrium represents a carrying capacity. As a predator-prey modeler who has made extensive use of carry capacity terms, defining carrying capacity in this manner seems very misguided. Either your population is limited by resources — you included carrying capacity to allow for that possibility — or your population is limited by natural enemies. But natural enemies clearly create population equilibrium in a very different way than limiting resources, so the fact that this Encyclopedia of Earth entry confuses the two is pretty egregious.

I have no idea how fast my new Eco 101 series will develop, but I probably will try to replace the current Encyclopedia of Earth exponential growth entry by next semester. Students have also complained about the ecological succession article that I have assigned in the past, so that one is ripe for replacement. It is amazing how there are so few quality articles for these very fundamental ecological concepts!

I fully acknowledge that each teacher — or learner — needs information presented at different levels of rigor and to different depths. I make no claim as to being capable of finding an ideal rigor and depth for my Eco 101 posts; I am sure that these posts will reflect what I think my students need. But I think that my students are representative of a lot of ecology learners: non-majors looking for a clear, basic explanation of ecological concepts. That’s what I hope that this Eco 101 series will provide.

A Minor Post, Eco 101, Ecology, Public Outreach

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