Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

One of the most limiting factors I have found so far as a field ecologist is getting access to land to collect data. Most of my research is on how insect communities influence ecosystem function. Although I collect a lot of my data on farms, I also work in natural systems.

Finding enough private properties is usually easy enough, depending on the study design. For our recent study of ecosystem services in apple orchards, for which we needed a certain number of specific types of orchard, it took me nearly 4 months of emails and phone calls to find enough suitable orchard growers who were happy for us to visit regularly.

Finding new field sites in natural areas can be a bit harder. In Australia, it can take up to 6 months to get a new research permit for a protected area. Sometimes, the permit is declined, or your application gets lost.

Getting permission is one thing, logistics are another. Balancing the ideal number of site replicates needed to answer the research question, with the funds you are allowed to spend on travel to get there, is one of the hardest tricks in the modern field ecologist’s book. Committing to regular long trips and nights away from home is even harder when you have a family life you want to be part of.

I also like to get to know the ecosystem I’m studying, observe it across seasons and weather conditions, and understand its processes and patterns. This is hard to do when your field sites are remote and all work travel needs to booked in advance through a complex star alignment of family, other work commitments, fund allocations and weather.

And it’s hard to pick up patterns of ecological interactions when I have to establish a whole lot of new field sites every time I start a new project. For early career researchers, this can be every 1-3 years.

So I have always been slightly envious of American and European ecologists…because field stations.

An Ode to Ecotones.

Field research stations are more numerous in the Americas and Europe, compared to Australia. And these countries, being the birthplace of modern field stations, also have a stronger ecological culture based around the role of field stations in teaching and research.

At the turn of the 20th century, field biologists had had enough of the ‘lab snobbery’ that had created a divide between laboratory-based biologists who considered themselves ‘real’ scientists, and the field-wandering natural historians who studied the ‘real world’.

Many called for a ‘new’ natural history to enhance the discipline’s reputation. The ideal of this new movement was a discipline that combined the old natural history traditions of field observation and description with the ‘scientific rigour’ of laboratory work and testing of theories.

In the United States, one of the great legacies of this era was the biological field research station. Marine stations had started opening in Europe in the mid-1800s. And, with the new push for field+lab ecology, it wasn’t long before inland research stations started popping up all over the Americas.

The greater part of a century has passed since Darwin published his famous work on the origin of species, and as yet no lands nor combined natural outdoor and laboratory facilities have been provided to study competition and the interchange of forces, which made up the basis of his theory…Various scientists have long hoped for lands and a laboratory where the interactions of land plants and animals and their physiological relations to climate can be studied just as the marine plants and animals are investigated in seaside biological stations.

~  V.E. Shelford (1939) Science 90:564-565.


The benefits of field stations are many. Aside from their teaching and conservation value, they also provide the opportunity to collect long-term data and build interdisciplinary collaborations. Most importantly, they are readily-available field sites for ecologists to access without having to deal with the bureaucratic hoops involved in establishing new field sites on public and private land.

Many ecologists would agree that Biological Field Stations are one of the things to have the biggest impact on ecology over the past 100 years. Some of the most seminal works in ecology arose from work conducted at field stations. Here is a long list of ecological luminaries who got their start at just one field station, New York State’s Huyck Preserve. One of the key classic texts for community ecologists, Charles Elton’s ‘The Pattern of Animal Communities’, was written from a 20-year survey at Oxford University’s Wytham Woods Estate.

Sadly, field stations are often taken for granted by the people that use them, or considered expensive collateral by the institutions that own them.

This recent review of the world’s biological research stations is fascinating. Australia has a total of 45 stations listed, out of a global total of 1268. Nine of these are affiliated with a company or non-profit organisation, and five with government agencies. Out of the rest, the top universities (in terms of number of field stations) are Uni of Queensland, James Cook Uni and Adelaide Uni with 4 stations each. Only 15 Australian universities have field stations for ecological research, out of about 40 universities across the country.

Many of these are marine stations, and there are also quite a few world-class agricultural field stations that don’t make this list. But these aren’t much help to most terrestrial ecologists.

So does ‘owning’ a field station mean a university is more likely to produce great ecological research? No, but it probably helps. If you look at the most recent ERA rankings (the research excellence rankings from our main government funding body), most of the universities in the top 10 for Environmental Sciences (9/10) and Biological Sciences (7/10) have access to their ‘own’ field stations (that’s a correlation, not a cause).

Of course field stations are not, and will never be, the only way to do ecology. I love the thrill of searching for new field sites and discovering new ecosystems and interactions. I love meeting new landholders and learning what they know about their local ecosystems. For many projects, the ideal study sites will not be found on a field station.

But having access to a permanent field site close to work is a field ecologist’s dream. It opens up many more valuable opportunities for teaching and research, from short-term student projects to long-term data collection, while allowing field ecologists a bit more work-life balance. It has to be a win-win.


Further reading:

Landscapes and Labscapes, Robert E. Kohler.

Writing the History of a Field Station blog, Laura Stephenson Carter.

Links above.

© Manu Saunders 2016

7 thoughts on “Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

  1. Jennifer October 5, 2016 / 1:31 AM

    Hmmm, I can see you have never been stuck working in a field station year round. While they may have had their uses in the past, they can also be little enclaves subject to the whims of despotic leaders and cutoff from scientific exchange since they are too expensive to get to for many researchers on ever tighter budgets.

    The world described by Kohler is long gone I’m afraid.

    Just take a closer look at the marine stations of UPMC in France for example. Tens of millions of euros have been invested in building projects for a number of visiting researchers that is so low, they report the numbers of visitor hours (the hours the visiting scientist is at the station) not the actual number of visiting scientists. But this is considered politically expedient for station directors who have two masters (the home university and the local politicians who want local jobs) to answer to. The argument for maintaining collections is far overblown and mostly wishful thinking. Collections are the first things to get dumped in small stations where office and lab space are at a premium. And as for local observation series, tight budgets mean no funding for this type of work either. Long-term in the Banyuls sur Mer station means from 1997 onward for example. Not even the traditional strong point of marine stations, teaching, is faring that well in the current climate. Insurance complications make it more and more difficult and costly to even get a student on a boat or in the water for example !

    These are worst case examples on the spectrum -of course there are many stations that have adapted and function just fine. Still if ecologists want to save field stations to be able to access specific sites, they will have to find better arguments than ones based in nostalgia. Station managers need to show some kind of “profitability” otherwise ecological research could see itself replace by more marketable biotech and big Pharma these days as has happened at UPMC.


    • Manu Saunders October 5, 2016 / 6:07 AM

      Thanks for your comment. My argument is not based in nostalgia, but in my own personal experience as a researcher. I realise not everyone will have the same experience. I’m specifically talking about access to sites close enough campus to allow regular, spontaneous visits and observation – not remote stations in exotic locations. For a field ecologist who has spent much of her research time seeking out sites, organising permissions, and travelling to & from those sites, I would appreciate the opportunity to have a site closer to home to observe ecology in action, which I find more rewarding to my career than planning travel itineraries. I’m also speaking from an Australian perspective, where field stations are few and far between.


  2. jeffollerton October 6, 2016 / 4:44 PM

    Interesting thoughts. Perhaps this is one factor explaining why urban ecology has become so popular in recent years? Not the only reason, sure, but a factor?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders October 6, 2016 / 5:33 PM

      I agree. I think working closer to home/work is an important factor for researchers, especially as administrative demands have increased, and also the fact that many people choose to reduce long-distance travel for environmental reasons. I have also wondered if this is also correlated with the rise in the number of quantitative ecologists 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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