Taxonomic specialisation in ecologists: why we need the fanatics

Racoons are well-known generalists, commonly considered a pest species. I still think they’re pretty cute, and this one appears to have some dance moves downpat too.

Since arriving here at the University of Melbourne I have been met with the question that people tend to ask when interacting with a fellow researcher, or anyone for that matter, for the first time: “what do you do?”. The conventional answer to this question amongst field ecologists typically takes the following form: “I look at (taxon) in (type of system/issue) using (methodology)”. Because I am a shameless generalist, this is a question I struggle to answer, and particularly with relation to which taxonomic group I associate myself with.

I tend to justify my lack of taxonomic specialisation by saying that I appreciate all aspects of nature and can’t bring myself to focus on just one component of it. In reality, I also lack an eye for detail, and the more pessimistic may say, am fickle and have a short attention span. But as new issues and conservation priorities develop, generalists like myself tend to respond quickly and be adaptable to what they’re working with. Generalists have a broad knowledge of underlying theory and the methodologies at their disposal, have a good grasp of what’s going on in the literature across sub-disciplines, and can select which focal group will be best suited to their study.

A juvenile mountain pygmy possum.

This is how it works in natural systems as well: all living things sit somewhere on a spectrum between extreme specialisation and extreme generalisation. Niche specialists are those that have very specific requirements with regards to what they eat (koalas with eucalypt leaves) and where they live (mountain pygmy possums are restricted to alpine environments). To bring it back to humans, people who specialise in bird ecology, ornithologists, do so not as a result of evolutionary adaptation, but rather because for some inexplicable reason they just REALLY DIG BIRDS. Now depending on how tactful you are, you may either refer to these specialist groups and individuals as certain types of people (“Andrew is a frog person”), or, alternatively, freaks. Everyone would like to think that their camp is not the worst: “Insect people!! Insect people are the biggest freaks!” or “I went to herp [herpetology] conference once, and it was pretty scary…”

However, these specialists have a very important role to play. When a generalist such as myself decides that they would like to use, let’s say echidnas, as the focal species for their study on [insert pressing issue here], you can guarantee that one of the first people they are going to turn to is a specialist. What is the best way to trap echidnas? Where can I find them? What equipment will I need? Or even better – do you have some data that I can use? Specialists are generally open to sharing this information with you, because it is for the greater good of their chosen species/group, and more knowledge and exposure for that group is a good thing.

This is not limited to field ecology – specialists are also invaluable in helping to determine model parameters, so outputs will form a better representation of what’s likely to be happening or will happen in the real world. How are echidnas likely to be affected by fire? How many young do they produce each year? How far will these disperse? How big are their home ranges? Without expert input and a solid foundation pre-existing knowledge, your predictions are likely to be unreliable if you actually want to apply them to making conservation decisions, and the whole exercise pointless (though this doesn’t stop people sometimes).

Pandas are extreme specialists, which feed only on bamboo… usually.

Because of their slightly obsessive nature, specialists are usually the first to pick up on subtle but important trends. For example, would we have known that the Christmas Island pipistrelle or the orange bellied parrot were facing extinction (Martin et al. 2012) were it not for those who tirelessly monitor(ed) these populations year after year? Frankly, if it weren’t for the people who care a helluvalot about a very specific thing, conservation science would be much worse off. So there you have it, specialisation in ecologists is a lot like specialisation in plants and animals: generalists are adaptable and respond quickly to emerging issues (or resources), but the specialists may be the ones who are highly valued, like our friends on the right. At least I think they should be.

Reference: Martin, T. G., S. Nally, A. Burbidge, S. T. Garnett, S. Harris, M. W. Hayward, M. Holdsworth, L. L.F., E. McDonald-Madden, P. Menkhorst, and H. P. Possingham. 2012. Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00239.x