I want to learn about ecology, coming from a mathematical backgroundJune 26, 2012 9:03 PM   Subscribe

For a long time I thought ecologists mainly did conservation work: going out into swamps and putting trackers on the tails of rare turtles, and maybe rescuing tiny birds from extinction. Which is admirable and actually really important, but didn't really interest me.

After yet another reread of Dune, I got kind of curious about the science of ecology, and how it's changed since the 60s. And while reading online, I discovered that I was completely wrong about it. Ecology apparently involves a lot of math. And not just the boring statistics that you need for any scientific study, but cool math. There are graphs, and matrices, and systems of differential equations, as well as complicated simulations and interesting algorithms and other such computer-sciencey things.

I have a decent understanding of the mathematics it seems like I would need (through linear algebra/differential equations, as well as some theoretical CS/algorithms). If it gets more abstruse than that, please let me know. As for biology: I know that there are cells, and they do something with DNA, and that there were once dinosaurs but then a meteor came and they got short and grew feathers.

So obviously I have to learn about the non-mathematical aspects of ecology too. Studying models without knowing what they represent is silly, and seeing how the math explains what goes on in diverse environments in the real world seems like it would be fascinating.

I've found this question, but I'm also interested in the more technical side of things.

I'm particularly looking for an interesting book to get me started. The qualities of my dream book, in approximate order of importance:
• engagingly written
• doesn't assume a biological background
• assumes some mathematical background, or at least includes some interesting math
• reasonable form-factor, not a 600 page tome
• not obscenely expensive
• relatively easy to find
The book I'm imagining would tell a story about an ecosystem and maybe about some of its researchers, and then explain in detail the techniques used to study it.

Those are fairly picky requirements. Any and all recommendations are welcome, even if they don't really have any or all of those qualities, as is general advice on how to proceed, and suggestions of websites and other resources that you think might be helpful.
posted by vogon_poet to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Review: Pigs for the Ancestors : Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People is a good one.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 9:52 PM on June 26, 2012

So my suggestions are based on the most mathematical of the texts I use on a regular basis and/or have been assigned in classes. I can't think of a book that does everything you would like but these ones are understandable if you understand the math. (I actually work on conservation and use a lot of matrix algebra...just so you know).

My first suggestion - A Primer of Ecology. Pros - provides an overview of the mathematical equations that underlie ecological theories; tiny; cheap; on Amazon. Cons - it is from 1998 so it's pretty out of date (i.e. computing power is a problem); doesn't address a lot of general ecology/biology, just specifics related to the math.

My second suggestion - Analysis and Mangement of Animal Populations. Pros - written by some of the smartest people in the field; written by at least one amazing teacher so very readable; covers a wide range of topics; easy to find; has more background on questions. Cons - expensive; giant; specific to one field of ecology (animal populations).

Final suggestion - and I'm biased because it's my field - start reading the journal Conservation Biology and especially papers by Possingham and his research group in Australia if you can get access to them. Generally, the problems in conservation biology are easy to understand and hard to solve mathematically. Things like 'How much land do you need to set aside for tiger conservation in India and how much will that cost to maintain?' and then you need to optimize over the whole country and integrate land cover changes and management actions. Anyway, we need some good mathematicians in conservation biology.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:53 PM on June 26, 2012

E. O Wilson's "Diversity of Life" (mentioned in the previous answers) and, if you have an iPad, his "Life on Earth" eBook is off to a good start (especially for the price!).

Campbell & Reece's "Biology", while a tome, is a pretty damned good primer for everything (and more). Has a quite good section on ecology, with more scattered throughout.

Gotelli's "A Primer of Ecology" is a good intro to the basic structures of ecological mathematics and modelling.

Krebs' "Ecological Methodolgy" is something of the Bible (and nearly as often argued about ;-). Not particularly engaging though…

If you've got journal access through, then "Ecological Modelling" is the go-to, though generally you'll find modelling spread across most of the ecology & environmental science journals.

And this is an interesting paper I found recently in PLoS One. Possibly the best simple explanation of metapopulation dynamics I've ever seen, coupled with a really interesting experiment.

(Ecology articles on PLoS tend to be a bit scarce and esoteric, but it's worth looking there)
posted by Pinback at 9:53 PM on June 26, 2012

Both James Gleicks' Chaos and George Dyson's more recent Turing's Cathedral touch on the computational aspects of ecology.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:11 PM on June 26, 2012

The Origins of Order by Kauffmann. A lot if ecology is the study of self organizing systems (whether people realise it or not). That's a solid intro.
posted by fshgrl at 10:39 PM on June 26, 2012

River Ecology and Management, Naiman and Bilby eds is very readable and every piece is underlain with math that you could follow deeper. Any book with hydrology or fluvial geomorphology in the title is guaranteed to be math heavy and underpin any ecological work in rivers (eg Fundamentals of Fluvial Geomorphology by Charlton).
posted by Forktine at 7:41 AM on June 27, 2012

As some people have said, many biologists and ecologists reach mathematical ecology via the biological sciences and have to learn the maths. There's a real research push to get more mathematicians into ecology, and they encounter the problem you have: most books and papers are written for people coming the other way.

One possible solution is to read Otto and Day, but do it in conjunction with a good biological dictionary and a good ecological primer (Gotelli is good and I'm not worried it being out of date; also Levin and/or Ricklefs). Otto and Day is brilliant, but intended to show biologists how they can represent their study systems mathematically. You'd probably have to zoom to the representations, and then work back to see what the system actually *is* - hence the primers.

But first - I'd read "The Selfish Gene" and "The Ancestor's Tale" (both by Dawkins), "Journey to the Ants" (HÃ¶lldobler & Wilson), "Why big fierce animals are rare" (Colinvaux) and perhaps "Mutants" (LeRoi: OK, it's evolution and development not ecology, but it's a fabulous biological book) to get you in the mood and glimpse the bigger picture.

Oh, and I'd support the Kauffmann book, too. Complex systems and ecology have a long shared history.
posted by cromagnon at 8:13 AM on June 27, 2012

I would suggest reading the classic (and slightly out-of-date but still VERY useful) Primer of Population Biology by Wilson & Bossert first. Then, I'd suggest the updated Primer of Ecology by Gotelli. Both are very similar, if you have even the slightest background in math, both are an easy read. Ricklefs & Miller's Ecology is a GREAT textbook, but it is a tome and only worth the money if you really want to dig deep into the field.
posted by pwb503 at 12:36 PM on June 27, 2012

I forgot, I should second that Levin book, The Princeton Guide to Ecology. It wouldn't be right to start with it, but if you decide you want to learn more, it is GREAT.
posted by pwb503 at 2:49 PM on June 27, 2012

Lots of good suggestions above. Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare was my first exposure to ecology, and I still love it. A few more that might be interesting: Hilborn & Mangel The Ecological Detective and Schlessinger Biogeochemistry.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:34 PM on June 27, 2012

These are all great answers, thanks everyone. I marked the ones I'll be going for first, most likely. E.O. Wilson and Gotelli already on the way.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:18 AM on July 29, 2012

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