From the social systems of songbirds to the ecosystems of disease, the topics that inspire some of today’s top ecologists reflect a surprisingly diverse array of scientific questions. Curated by SFI External Professor Andrew Dobson (Princeton University), Robert D. Holt (University of Florida), and David Tilman (University of Minnesota), the essays in Unsolved Problems in Ecology consider unanswered questions about scaling, population biology, ecosystems and communities, collective behavior, and conservation, among other themes. From graduate students seeking new areas of study to established researchers inspired by fresh ideas, this book is ideal for ecologists of all stripes.
While ecology is often considered a young science, many of the difficult problems facing contemporary ecologists have been stimulating scholars since well before the 18th century. “If you go back to Aristotle, he was interested in things still studied at the Santa Fe Institute and still mentioned in this book,” Dobson says. “But now we have a more formal scientific framework in which to think about them.”
The essays cover subjects ranging from specific areas of research like the structure of leaves and the complex life cycles of parasitic worms to broader issues like ecological variance and business models for research. But this kind of sprawling diversity is already baked into ecology as a scientific field. “In ecology, you’ve got so many different interacting populations, all of differing sizes, interacting nonlinearly in many different dimensions and scales,” Dobson says. “We tend to underestimate their complexity.”
According to several contributors, a shift toward collaboration is key to helping ecologists tackle the difficult and diffuse problems facing their field in the current century. It’s fitting that Unsolved Problems in Ecology is itself a group effort designed to address wide-ranging questions, encourage curiosity, and foster discussion and cross-pollination.
“Someone at the Santa Fe Institute should do a book on unsolved problems in complexity,” Dobson says. “I’d love to see all the different perspectives on that.”