The publication of the third edition of Richard Southwood's Ecological Methods
is an occasion for mutual back-slapping. Ecologists can observe that it confirms that their science is thriving and is certainly relevant to many of the world's most urgent problems - poverty elimination, global warming and biodiversity conservation. Southwood can be justifiably proud of his prescience in writing the earlier editions (1966 and 1978) that played no small part in fostering the ecological explosion.
Readers familiar with those earlier editions will appreciate that this edition has the same 'feel' as its predecessors - the mix of practical hands-on advice on field techniques and details of how to treat the resultant data mathematically. At the same time, there is the opportunity to chuckle at some of the artifices employed by ecologists. Separating weevil eggs from floating vegetation or X-raying wood to detect boring insects are always going to be minority sports.
In this new edition, Southwood has collaborated with Peter Henderson of Pisces Conservation Ltd. Henderson's input is evident in the more thorough treatment of, for example, fish-trapping techniques. At the same time, the subtitle of earlier editions 'with special reference to insect populations' has been correctly jettisoned. This revised book has far more to offer. There are new chapters on wildlife population estimates, and on large-scale spatial and temporal studies, whereas the second edition's chapter on systems analysis and modelling has been excised. At the same time, the book is linked to a useful website, which, on a chapter-by-chapter basis, illustrates various items of apparatus, provides references too fresh to have reached the printed book, and lists useful suppliers of software and equipment.
Southwood and Henderson cannot treat the methods of molecular ecology owing to considerations of space. The treatment of 'traditional' radio-tracking and of newer satellite-tracking is exceedingly brief, and one would not guess from the text how widely used passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, that do not require an in situ
power source, are already. If it becomes possible to 'interview' such tags from satellites, their use will escalate. Very small light-sensitive loggers, also too recent to have reached Ecological Methods
, are further devices that promise to permit the detailed long-distance tracking of small migratory mammals1
As the preface of this magnificent vade mecum
points out, the advent of PCs since the second edition has revolutionised the capacity of the ecologist to handle data. But, and here I cannot resist a quote, 'the researcher who relies entirely on the output of a computer is in danger of drawing false conclusions and overlooking possible insights'. If that is an exhortation to every ecologist to think and doodle a little more, and to remain aware that the back of an envelope can provide as quick a road to the truth as a flickering screen, then it is one I heartily endorse.
In summary, Ecological Methods
remains the ideal starting point for anyone seeking guidance on the multiplicity of methods available for ecological sampling.M. de L. Brooke, Dept. of Zoology, University of Cambridge.
Weimerskirch, H. and Wilson, R.P. (2000) Oceanic respite for wandering albatrosses. Nature
Back to Publications page