In the early 20th century, the Rübel Foundation coordinated International Phytogeographic Excursions3 where top ecologists from the USA, England, Scandinavia and Central Europe met regularly for weeks at a time to identify plant communities from different regions and to compare descriptions of vegetation types. This exchange of scientific ideas resulted in a vegetation classification system that is recognised the world over and crucial to global ecological research.
Even today, climate models rely on standardised vegetation classifications to determine interactions between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere. On a smaller scale, in most countries, vegetation maps form the basis for planning new national parks and nature reserves or performing environmental impact assessments.
Early invasion biology and urban ecology
In the 19th century, Zurich botanists such as Martin Rikli, Otto Nägeli and Albert Thellung created the first floristic inventory of the Canton of Zurich. Already at that time they dealt with the change of the flora by humans. They classified non-native species on the basis of their dispersal behaviour and were intrigued by Zurich’s urban flora.
In doing so, these Zurich pioneers were addressing questions that lie at the heart of today’s ecological research such as invasion biology and urban ecology. And had their analyses been published in English rather than German or French, it would not have taken a century for them to be recognised as a core work in the worldwide discussion on invasive species.4
The bedrock of ecological research
Nowadays many ecologists work in the lab or at their computers, and there’s certainly justification for this. But even in the age of digitisation, we cannot rely solely on modern methods and purely digital data – to interpret them accurately, we need an in-depth knowledge of interrelationships in the field.
As the three historical examples show, field research helps to detect changes in nature at an early stage, align computer models and planning instruments to the real world, and trigger creative ideas and new theories. We still need the expertise of field biologists who venture into the wild and apply their species identification skills to record in great detail all they observe.
Christoph Küffer wrote this blog together with Alexander Widmer.