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Century of statistical ecology reviewed

May 14, 2024
Michigan State University
A special review examines highly-cited papers in statistical ecology. The review, which covers a century of research, details how models and concepts have evolved alongside increasing computational power.

Crunching numbers isn't exactly how Neil Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, envisioned a career in ecology.

"I think it's a little funny that I'm doing this statistical ecology work because I was always OK at math, but never particularly enjoyed it," he explained. "As an undergrad, I thought, I'll be an ecologist -- that means that I can be outside, looking at birds, that sort of thing."

As it turns out," he chuckled, "ecology is a very quantitative discipline."

Now, working in the Zipkin Quantitative Ecology lab, Gilbert is the lead author on a new article in a special collection of the journal Ecology that reviews the past century of statistical ecology.

Statistical ecology, or the study of ecological systems using mathematical equations, probability and empirical data, has grown over the last century. As increasingly large datasets and complex questions took center stage in ecological research, new tools and approaches were needed to properly address them.

To better understand how statistical ecology changed over the last century, Gilbert and his fellow authors examined a selection of 36 highly cited papers on statistical ecology -- all published in Ecology since its inception in 1920.

The team's paper examines work on statistical models across a range of ecological scales from individuals to populations, communities, ecosystems and beyond. The team also reviewed publications providing practical guidance on applying models. Gilbert noted that because, "many practicing ecologists lack extensive quantitative training," such publications are key to shaping studies.

Ecology is an advantageous place for such papers, because it is one of, "the first internationally important journals in the field. It has played an outsized role in publishing important work," said lab leader Elise Zipkin, a Red Cedar Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology.

"It has a reputation of publishing some of the most influential papers on the development and application of analytical techniques from the very beginning of modern ecological research."

The team found a persistent evolution of models and concepts in the field, especially over the past few decades, driven by refinements in techniques and exponential increases in computational power.

"Statistical ecology has exploded in the last 20 to 30 years because of advances in both data availability and the continued improvement of high-performance computing clusters," Gilbert explained.

Included among the 36 reviewed papers were a landmark 1945 study by Lee R. Dice on predicting the co-occurrence of species in space -- Ecology's most highly cited paper of all time -- and an influential 2002 paper led by Darryl MacKenzie on occupancy models. Ecologists use these models to identify the range and distribution of species in an environment.

Mackenzie's work on species detection and sampling, "played an outsized role in the study of species distributions," says Zipkin. MacKenzie's paper, which was cited more than 5,400 times, spawned various software packages that are now widely used by ecologists, she explained.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Michigan State University. Original written by Caleb Hess. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Neil A. Gilbert, Bruna R. Amaral, Olivia M. Smith, Peter J. Williams, Sydney Ceyzyk, Samuel Ayebare, Kayla L. Davis, Wendy Leuenberger, Jeffrey W. Doser, Elise F. Zipkin. A century of statistical Ecology. Ecology, 2024; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.4283

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Michigan State University. "Century of statistical ecology reviewed." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 May 2024. <>.
Michigan State University. (2024, May 14). Century of statistical ecology reviewed. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 19, 2024 from
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