An ode to scale

Four blindfolded people stand around an unknown object.  One person touches it and decides that it’s a rope, another claims it is a tree trunk.  The third person argues that it is clearly a wall, the fourth feels a fan.  Their blindfolds come off, and they see an elephant.

I’ve been thinking about scale and perspective lately (so prepare yourself for the banal musings of a new grad student).  Scale and perspective of course have a defining impact on any ecological study, even if they aren’t explicitly analyzed or extensively discussed.  My work (at least, the work I hope to do) will try to link physiological traits to broad biogeographical patterns, so scale has played a significant role in my recent readings.

Scale has cropped up a lot in our discussions and in our guest speaker’s talks in the past few days.  At what geographical and phylogenetic scales would you expect to see convergence in traits?  At what scales would you expect to see divergence?  A change in scale can totally reverse observed patterns of biodiversity (Powell et al., 2013), and an increase in scale can open our eyes to both current and historical factors that influence communities and populations that we see locally (e.g., Sedio et al. 2013).

Perspective and sampling location have also played an important part in our discussions, particularly during our monkey walk today.  Meg explained to us how social behaviour in primates is influenced by population and location, and warned us of the dangers in sampling bias (e.g., capuchins in Costa Rica behave very differently from those at BCI, but most of our information on their social behaviours come from Costa Rica).  Perhaps most importantly, we learned that capuchins will bitch-slap ocelots (capuchins are truly the John McClanes of the New World primates), but the scale stuff was cool too.

Of course, collecting data on large scales can be fraught with methodological, logistical and financial difficulties.  That’s one reason it’s nice to come to a place like BCI, where research has been conducted on extraordinary spatial and temporal scales.  As Owen told us, it’s a good reminder to be bold in our science.

Anyways, I don’t have anything new or exciting to add to the discussion on scale and perspective in ecology.  I am however making a firm resolution to think more about scale and perspective and how it applies to my own work, and how it influences my interpretations of the work of others- I want to see elephants, not ropes and walls.


Powell, K. I., Chase, J. M., & Knight, T. M. (2013). Invasive Plants Have Scale-Dependent Effects on Diversity by Altering Species-Area Relationships. Science, 339(6117), 316–318.
Sedio, B. E., Paul, J. R., Taylor, C. M., & Dick, C. W. (2013). Fine-scale niche structure of Neotropical forests reflects a legacy of the Great American Biotic Interchange. Nature Communications, 4, 2317.

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