Freshwater, fishing and a family affair

Essentials of Ecology. First edition - Ecology of Coastal Waters with Implications for Management. Second edition - Ecological Methods. Third edition - Ecology and Field Biology. Sixth edition
March 2, 2001

The assumption that an ecology book that remains in print for 35 years must be exceptional is true only if it is relevant and up to date. A wealth of knowledge and experience from a distinguished cast of authors is included in the four texts reviewed here.

Many British ecologists have owned previous editions of Ecological Methods and have used it extensively for teaching and research, referring to it in the first instance for the relevant technique, method or analysis. Coming from an entomological starting point, successive editions have included techniques more applicable to other environments such as freshwaters, and taxa such as mammals and birds. In this respect, and with the addition of contemporary references, the authors have added a great deal to Southwood's earlier editions.

In this book, I found the advice offered by F. Morris in 1960: "We are not likely to learn what precision is required by pessimistic contemplation of individual fiducial limits." We are better off trying than being put off by the thought that we will never get a measurable answer. This book teaches us how to find the methods to facilitate an answer. This edition has been added to, rather than severely revised. New chapters and sections bring us to the end of the 20th century, providing an entrée into the techniques literature.

But I find this edition slightly unsatisfactory, as not all of the deadwood has been weeded out. Probability paper is rarely used now calculations are carried out by computer. A culling of "old-fashioned" material would have been more of an improvement than dropping the cautionary rhyme at the beginning - science should be fun as well as serious. It is well indexed, but another slight cavil is the removal of the author index with references placed at the ends of chapters. The figures and diagrams are clean and appropriate to a methodological handbook.

Ecology and Field Biology is the most comprehensive of the four books and has shown marked evolution from the first edition by R. L. Smith. Since then, it has become, the authors confess, a family industry with updated content beautifully illustrated by the third son. Well presented in the tradition of good American textbooks, this would serve as the basic text for a complete course in ecology. It is filled with excellent colour photographs and pertinent figures. Material and examples are taken from world literature and it would be difficult to imagine what else should be added to a general textbook on modern ecology. Appendices on sampling and measurement provide a useful introduction to ecological techniques without trying to mimic dedicated methodological textbooks. Current and comprehensive references are at the back together with a useful glossary of terms. My only criticism, which is probably not fair, is that the bread-and-butter examples of plants and animals are mainly North American. Students relate better to native examples of flora and fauna.

Essentials of Ecology is the text I would recommend for my first-year ecology course. It is foolish of the publishers to suggest that it is not a compressed version of their earlier text Ecology . Nevertheless, it is an affordable work with enough information for a course at level one on this side of the Atlantic. It is logically organised and uses the box system of providing examples, methods and principles. I have always found this a useful way of drawing the attention of students to a particular problem. The diagrams are relevant and in simple line form with limited colour, which makes them crisp. But the photographs are not so pleasing; the focusing is worse than my own. The references are relevant, if a little limited. Summaries and review questions at the end of each chapter are good and I found them quite challenging at times. This represents a good introductory text and I can see it reaching several editions.

These three texts include interactive websites and webpages that have additional information and problems.

Ecology of Coastal Waters with Implications for Management is by far the easiest of these books to read. Ken Mann has been writing for more than 40 years. He never fails to produce something informative and challenging. He tackles the major coastal ecosystems including shores, estuaries and shelf systems. He treats each ecosystem in the same way by examining the physical and chemical structure of the environment, nutrient fluxes and the role of the organisms and their production. Topics of special interest such as the crisis in the fishing industry -its consequences and likely outcomes -are dealt with in detail. A non-specialist audience would also find this of interest. The final chapter treats these ecosystems in a holistic fashion and asks important questions about our custody and use of them now and in the future. Much scientific experience is incorporated in this book, together with wise advice. Well written and presented, with informative diagrams and examples, and well referenced and indexed, this book is strongly recommended.

Tony Andrew is lecturer in environmental science, University of Ulster.

Essentials of Ecology. First edition

Author - Colin R. Townsend, John L. Harper and Michael L. Begon
ISBN - 0 632 04348 2
Publisher - Blackwell Science
Price - £28.50
Pages - 553

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