The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology : The Robert H . MacArthur Award Lecture

by S. a. Levin
Ecology Society of America ()


It is argued that the problem of pattern and scale is the central problem in ecology, unifying population biology and ecosystems science, and marrying basic and applied ecology. Applied challenges, such as the prediction of the ecological causes and consequences of global climate change, require the interfacing of phenomena that occur on very different scales of space, time, and ecological organization. Furthermore, there is no single natural scale at which ecological phenomena should be studied; systems generally show characteristic variability on a range of spatial, temporal, and organizational scales. The observer imposes a perceptual bias, a filter through which the system is viewed. This has fundamental evolutionary significance, since every organism is an "observer" of the environment, and life history adaptations such as dispersal and dormancy alter the perceptual scales of the species, and the observed variability. It likewise has fundamental significance for our own study of ecological systems, since the patterns that are unique to any range of scales will have unique causes and biological consequences. The key to prediction and understanding lies in the elucidation of mechanisms underlying observed patterns. Typically, these mechanisms operate at different scales than those on which the patterns are observed; in some cases, the patterns must be understood as emerging from the collective behaviors of large ensembles of smaller scale units. In other cases, the pattern is imposed by larger scale constraints. Examination of such phenomena requires the study of how pattern and variability change with the scale of description, and the development of laws for simplification, aggregation, and scaling. Examples are given from the marine and terrestrial literatures.

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