Publisher: Blackwell Date of Publication: 2006
Price: £ 37.90 ISBN: 1 4051 1117 8
Pages: ix + 738 Format: Paperback

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1 - Organisms in their environments: the evolutionary backdrop; 2 - Conditions; 3 - Resources; 4 - Life, death and life histories; 5 - Intraspecific competition; 6 - Dispersal, dormancy and metapopulations; 7 - Ecological applications at the level of organisms and single-species populations; 8 - Interspecific competition; 9 - The nature of predation; 10 - The population dynamics of predation; 12 - Parasitism and disease; 13 - Symbiosis and mutualism; 14 - Abundance; 15 - Ecological applications at the level of population interactions; 16 - The nature of community; 17 - The flux of energy through ecosystems; 18 - The flux of matter through ecosystems; 19 - The influence of population interactions on community structure; 20 - Food webs; 21 - Patterns in species richness; 22 - Ecological applications at the level of communities and ecosystems.



Given that this is often cited as one of the key (if not the key) basic ecology text and given that it has now reached its fourth edition there are clearly going to be problems in trying to assess what is almost an institution. For example there will be the new readers who need to see the scope of the text and there will be those who have followed the authors through from edition one wondering if the upgrade is worthwhile. It follows that this review needs to focus on more than one area to come up with an answer for everybody.

Let's start with a basic run-through of the text for the new reader. Earlier editions tried to cover all aspects from beginner to more advanced work but the split into two areas (brought about the the publication of the companion Essentials of Ecology in 2000) is complete in this edition so the most immediate effect is that this is not a beginner's guide but a more advanced work. The authors have also been at pains to point out the text has been both updated and reduced in size (fewer pages but also a much smaller typeface). Like previous versions, the book is divided into three parts, corresponding to organisms, populations and communities. Of course, one could argue for another order and be equally justified (as the authors rightly state) but the point is that the sequence is both logical and also allows for issues of scale to be raised after some basic ecological understanding has been gained.

Part one focusses on the organism. The opening chapter looks at evolution but from an ecological standpoint, mainly speciation. Any organism has to live within certain environmental parameters and the range and nature of these forces is the subject of chapter two. Chapter three deals with resources. At first this might seem confusing - aren't conditions also resources especially in the way they are tackled here? Although the start is tenuous the distinction is soon obvious: chapter two deals with place and chapter three with the necessities of existence e.g. photosynthesis, mineral nutrients and also defences (i.e. continuing existence). The next move is to life histories, looking at the limitations of various strategies to continue the species. Of course, this also depends on surviving one's brethren and so chapter five looks at intraspecific competition. Assuming that organisms have got this far then the final stage is to move out to spread the distribution of the species (chapter six). The final chapter in this section takes a practical turn - in this case looking at the application of ecology to restoration, biosecurity and conservation. Part two moves up-scale to examine the ecology of populations. Here, the ecological principles are not that of the individual but the group. Thus chapter 8 starts with interspecific competition in general. The two subsequent chapters look at one key element of this - predation and its dynamics (foraging, prey switching etc.). The key focus in the latter area is non-linear dynamics, chaotic responses and the implications of this. One of the aspects of predation is the waste products produced. Chapter 11 looks at the ecology of detritivores - a vital area that has recently come under scrutiny for its impact in areas such as the carbon cycle and global warming. Not all relationships are eater/eaten. Admittedly, parasitism and disease in chapter 12 is negative for the host but the ecology of defence is useful in understanding disease treatment strategies and even evolution. Less one-sided is the study of symbiosis and mutualism which forms chapter 13. Somewhat out on its own is the next chapter which focuses on the dynamics of abundance and the theories which seek to explain it. The final chapter is this part is again a practical one but at the population level it examines pest control and sustainable yield both vital areas if we are to feed as many people as possible. Part three raises the scale to that of community and ecosystem. In real systems, individuals and populations interact and so the starting point here of community distribution in time and space (i.e. succession and zonation as well as some of the more advanced maths-based concepts) is crucial. One part of this (linking this book to the first of the modern set of general ecology texts) is energy flow, the subject of chapter 17 whilst the next chapter repeats the exercise with the flow of matter i.e. nutrient cycling (with good, brief overviews of the key macronutrient's chemical cycles). This brings us the the need for species to co-exist or keep their own place (chapter 19). Niche are crucial here but there's also the notion of community organisation. Chapter 20 looks at food webs but also some of the main concepts behind them. The two final chapters are linked in their study of community responses. On the theoretical side this involves the parameters of species richness leaving chapter 23 to look at the ways in which succession, food webs and ecosystem functions can be used in biotic management. It's clear this text covers a most impressive range of topics with virtually every key idea getting a mention. Of equal value is the clarity of layout and production making it easy to read and navigate through the chapters. Unlike many texts this does not have a range of questions or references: a simple summary suffices to pull together the main points.

The next stage is to consider the existing reader. Worth the upgrade? Almost certainly, yes. Chapters have been reduced in number and put into a far more logical sequence. For example, intraspecific competition is in organisms (part one) and not in part two as in the third edition which makes more sense. The chance to reduce and re-organise chapters has made the text easier to follow and made the connecting concepts easier to appreciate. Even a cursory glance through the copious reference list shows a large number of new cases. There's only one element that it would have been nice to see. Given that this text has a key bearing on ecology education it is a pity that more wasn't made of molecular ecology as this is fast becoming the cutting edge of the subject's development

Overall, this text has continued to earn its dominance in the market. Reorganisation and a new production look have tidied it up both conceptually and in terms of readability. For those for whom Essentials is too basic this is the text to read at the next level. It's comprehensive coverage and wide range of examples make it an essential purchase for basic/advanced ecology education.


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