Display Accessibility Tools

Accessibility Tools


Highlight Links

Change Contrast

Increase Text Size

Increase Letter Spacing

Readability Bar

Dyslexia Friendly Font

Increase Cursor Size

Above Average: MSU ecologists review a century of statistical ecology

By Caleb Hess

Article Highlights

  • Neil Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher in the Zipkin lab, is the lead author on a review of over 30 influential publications on statistical ecology from the journal Ecology.
  • Elise Zipkin, a Red Cedar Distinguished Professor in the department of Integrative Biology and Director of the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program, recently joined Ecology as Statistical Innovations Editor.

Crunching numbers isn’t exactly how Neil Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, envisioned a career in ecology.

“I think it's a little funny that I'm doing this statistical ecology work because I was always OK at math, but never particularly enjoyed it,” he explained. “As an undergrad, I thought, I’ll be an ecologist — that means that I can be outside, looking at birds, that sort of thing.”  

As it turns out,” he chuckled, “ecology is a very quantitative discipline.” 

Now, working in the Zipkin Quantitative Ecology lab, Gilbert is the lead author on a new article in a special collection of the journal Ecology that reviews the past century of statistical ecology.  

Statistical ecology, or the study of ecological systems using mathematical equations, probability and empirical data, has grown over the last century. As increasingly large datasets and complex questions took center stage in ecological research, new tools and approaches were needed to properly address them.

Neil Gilbert
Neil Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher in the Zipkin Quantitative Ecology lab, is lead author on the review, which headlines a special edition of Ecology. Credit: Daniel Trego

To better understand how statistical ecology changed over the last century, Gilbert and his fellow authors examined a selection of 36 highly cited papers on statistical ecology — all published in Ecology since its inception in 1920.  

The team’s paper examines work on statistical models across a range of ecological scales from individuals to populations, communities, ecosystems and beyond. The team also reviewed publications providing practical guidance on applying models. Gilbert noted that because, “many practicing ecologists lack extensive quantitative training,” such publications are key to shaping studies. 

Ecology is an advantageous place for such papers, because it is one of, “the first internationally important journals in the field. It has played an outsized role in publishing important work,” said lab leader Elise Zipkin, a Red Cedar Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. “It has a reputation of publishing some of the most influential papers on the development and application of analytical techniques from the very beginning of modern ecological research." The team found a persistent evolution of models and concepts in the field, especially over the past few decades, driven by refinements in techniques and exponential increases in computational power. 

“Statistical ecology has exploded in the last 20 to 30 years because of advances in both data availability and the continued improvement of high-performance computing clusters,” Gilbert explained. 

Included among the 36 reviewed papers were a landmark 1945 study by Lee R. Dice on predicting the co-occurrence of species in space — Ecology’s most highly cited paper of all time — and an influential 2002 paper led by Darryl MacKenzie on occupancy models.  Ecologists use these models to identify the range and distribution of species in an environment.  

Mackenzie’s work on species detection and sampling, “played an outsized role in the study of species distributions,” says Zipkin. MacKenzie’s paper, which was cited more than 5,400 times, spawned various software packages that are now widely used by ecologists, she explained. 

The team didn’t look back just for nostalgia’s sake, however:  Zipkin, who is also director of MSU’s Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, or EEB, program, was recently appointed as the Statistical Innovations Editor at Ecology.

Elise Zipkin
Elise Zipkin, Director of MSU's EEB program, was recently appointed as Statistical Innovations Editor at Ecology. Credit: Daniel Trego

Zipkin will be the first person to assume the role. As the inaugural appointee, she aims to build upon the journal’s legacy of publishing influential work on statistical ecology and reinvigorate Ecology’s influence in a decentralized publishing landscape. 

Both Zipkin and Gilbert noted that the emergence of new journals has diluted Ecology’s impact on statistical ecology in recent years. The lab’s 100-year review of statistical ecology work in Ecology provided an opportunity to highlight the journal’s longstanding influence, and to set the stage for a new emphasis on statistical ecology under Zipkin’s guidance. 

The Zipkin lab’s paper, and the special collection of Ecology in which it appears, are “the first efforts to drum up excitement,” about the future of statistical ecology, according to Zipkin. 

 “The field of ecology is always evolving. Understanding what has happened over the last century can help us to determine what might be coming in the next century and where the important innovations are likely to be,” she explained, “I want Ecology to be the place where researchers publish their best, most broadly applicable research.”