A number of advances in scientific disciplines in the past can be directly linked to advances in technology that support those fields. What about the science of ecology? How has ecological theory and practice been enhanced by advances in technology? The science of ecology is so broad that advances in other disciplines often directly benefit ecological research techniques, including the development of biotechnology, telemetric instrumentation, satellite tracking and location systems,
and remote sensing technology.
Like most sciences, computers have advanced the study of ecology in allowing simulations of experiments that real time or space would not allow. This has led to the enhancement of landscape ecology, a rapidly expanding field within the discipline. Computers have facilitated the use of larger data sets and sophisticated statistical packages, as well as access to national and global data sets.
Despite these changes, much of the basic information of ecological research, such as the presence and absence of plants and animals in an area, is still collected using relatively primitive methods. Basic observations recorded with a pencil and notebook are likely to remain a major component of field ecology for the foreseeable future.
Ever since Galileo first turned a telescope to the stars early in the 1600s, new technologies have led to new discoveries in science. Since the German zoologist
Ernst Haeckel first described the science of ecology in 1869, the field has undergone immense growth and diversification. How have advances in technology enhanced the science of ecology?
Technology is a two-edged sword. Whilst many of the rapid changes in the world bring a seeming improvement in the quality of human life, those same changes often contribute to increased strain on the Earth's ecological support systems.
Nevertheless, one might expect, at least, some practical advantages for ecological research to flow from technological advances. Yet, most ecologists still carry a pencil and notebook when in the field, and many rely on very old techniques (for example, pitfall trapping) to collect some data. Not surprisingly perhaps, many modern textbooks on ecological techniques contain methods that have been used for over a century of inquiry - for example, Sutherland (1996).
RESEARCH AND DECIDE
This chapter briefly describes some ways in which technology has enhanced the methods used in ecology in recent years, and addresses some of the reasons why ecological methodologies are not being driven more by technology.
What is technology for ecologists?
In discussing the technologies adopted by ecologists, one problem is to define the borders of ecology. Clearly, ecology overlaps the biological disciplines of genetics, evolution, physiology and behaviour (Krebs 1985). Advances in biotechnology over the past decade, for example, have led to taxonomic revisions that are causing evolutionary biologists to re-think many current evolutionary theories. Can we fairly count these changes as advances in ecology? Probably. The science of ecology is so broad that advances in other disciplines often directly benefit ecological research and understanding.
Like most scientists, ecologists collect data, collate, analyse and interpret them, then disseminate them and communicate about them. Krebs (1985) stated that ecologists were basically interested in where organisms are found, how many occur there and why. In addition, many ecologists are involved in subsequent conservation and management of these organisms or suites of organisms. These job descriptions of an ecologist are a useful place to start in considering the role of technology in ecology.
Most researchers in ecology are aware of the recent advances in their immediate areas of interest through reading scientific articles, attending…