Conceptual toolboxes for twenty-ﬁrst-century ecologists
Department of Botany, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071 USA
Department of Philosophy, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071 USA
Department of Political Science and Administration, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida, 33965 USA
CIAT-International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Km 17, Recta Cali-Palmira 763537 Colombia
Citation: Reiners, W. A., G. S. Pappas, J. A. Lockwood, D. S. Reiners, and S. D. Prager. 2018. Conceptual toolboxes for
twenty-ﬁrst-century ecologists. Ecosphere 9(2):e02104. 10.1002/ecs2.2104
We ecologists realize that individually we have a variety of interests, knowledge, and skills
among us; and we appreciate how those attributes differentially apply to the diverse tasks we address in
our various “practices” of ecology. Less obvious to us, however, is the variety of intellectual tools we bring
to bear in our practices. In order to understand how members of our discipline “think” as well as “know”
and “act,” this paper explores how the utility of ecological concepts varies among ecologists and how con-
cepts tend to be lumped into what might be viewed as cognitive “toolkits” for implementing our work.
Knowing the character of these metaphorical toolkits helps us to understand the nature of our discipline,
to better teach ecology, and to more effectively communicate with one another. We collected “usefulness”
ratings of 131 normative concepts (i.e., what an ecologist ought to know) through an Ecological Society of
America-wide survey and analyzed results through cluster analysis. Ten concept clusters emerged, each
having varying numbers of concepts and various degrees of subject matter cohesion. Only some of these
resembled commonly recognized specializations in ecology. General descriptors for these clusters are as
follows: general ecology, population ecology, community ecology, evolutionary ecology, ecosystem ecology, biogeo-
chemistry, spatial structures, scaling structure and function, cross-system structures, and cross-system dynamics.
Key words: classiﬁcation; concept toolkits; concept usefulness; ecological concepts; ordination; survey.
Received 28 September 2017; revised 4 December 2017; accepted 6 December 2017. Corresponding Editor: Debra P. C.
Copyright: © 2018 Reiners et al. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The 100th anniversary of the founding of the
Ecological Society of America (ESA)—the world’s
largest ecological society—stimulated reﬂection on
the nature of the discipline at this historic time
(Turner 2015). This reﬂective sense was manifested
in a host of recent papers asking to what degree,
and in what way, ecology has changed through
recent history, and whether—in fact—it has pro-
gressed (see review and analysis in Nobis and
Wohlgemuth 2004). In this context, we asked: By
what conceptual frameworks do contemporary
ecologists operate, and which concepts (deﬁned in
Deﬁning and categorizing ecological concepts)areof
greatest use by ecologists today (Reiners et al.
2017)? As part of this overall inquiry, we also asked
how concept utility might vary among different
kinds of ecologists (D. S. Reiners et al., in prepara-
tion), and—the objective of this paper—we asked
whether concepts might tend to be aggregated into
different associations in a manner analogous to the
way species assemble into communities. If such
concept associations (clusters) existed, those