Editor's Choice

Volume 96, Issue 1 (January 2008)

In January’s issue of Journal of Ecology, Editor Richard Bardgett has chosen to highlight two papers: one by Pickett and Cadenasso, and the other by Moles et al. Notably, these papers are the first of our new Future Directions series, which provides authors with an opportunity to briefly outline a provocative new direction for a discipline within plant ecology.

In the first of these papers, Pickett and Cadenasso call for greater engagement of plant ecological research into urban design, and explore how plant ecology and urban design can interconnect to improve ecological understanding and quality of life in the world’s burgeoning cities.

The theme of this paper is a departure from most studies published in Journal of Ecology, which are mostly focused on wild lands or semi-natural and agricultural habitats. But it could not be more important: as highlighted by Pickett and Cadenasso, urban areas are expanding worldwide and by the end of this decade the majority of the Earth’s residents will live in cities and suburban areas. This raises critical questions about how the science of plant ecology will deal with this global trend, and creates new and urgent challenges for ecology at the urban frontier, which are considered in this paper. Specifically, the paper: identifies ecologically orientated goals which might be achieved in urban areas; explores the potential social and scientific benefits of linking ecology with urban design using a synthetic framework, the open cycle of ecological urban design; and identifies additional benefits of integrating ecology with design, such as providing an opportunity to educate the public and policy makers about the ecological processes on which their settlements depend. A key point made by Pickett and Cadenasso is that the call for greater connection between ecology and urban design has also come from urban designers, such as architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban planners. This further highlights the urgent need to interconnect ecology into the design of expanding urban ecosystems.

The second Future Directions paper by Moles et al. is on a subject that is more familiar to readers of Journal of Ecology: the ecology of plant invasion. Historically, a key challenge in this area of research has been the search for traits that characterize successful invaders. However, as highlighted by Moles et al., the results of this work have been a bit disappointing, in that few generalizations have emerged because traits of successful invaders appear to be context-dependent. Moles et al. tackle this issue by proposing a new framework for predicting which traits are likely to succeed in a given ecosystem, based on prevailing environmental conditions, the traits of resident species, as well as the traits of the invading species. The framework relies on the use of multivariate statistical approaches to combine existing plant trait databases with information on the environmental conditions under which the traits occur, including variables such as soil fertility, precipitation and disturbance frequency. Such data can then be used to parameterize a model that gives a predicted distribution of traits under given environmental conditions.

For simplicity, Moles et al. illustrate their model using the distribution of a single trait, namely seed mass, but they stress that the model would need to consider the distribution of multiple ecologically important traits simultaneously in multidimensional trait space. Two cases are presented to illustrate how the model can be used to predict: (a) the range of new strategies that will succeed after a change in environmental conditions, for example after intense anthropogenic disturbance of New Zealand forests; and b) the invasion of vacant niches in an ecosystem, using as an example the invasion of nitrogen-fixers into nitrogen limited Hawaiian forests where they were previously absent. Importantly, Moles et al. argue that their framework is not limited to plant invasions: the same approach can be used for any taxa (e.g. insects, fish, mammals and marine invertebrates) and could also be used to predict species responses to environmental change.

We hope you will enjoy reading these two articles and the other excellent papers published in this issue of Journal of Ecology. If you have any comments about our published output we would be pleased to hear them. Please write to the Managing Editor.