Ecology of North America. 2e.

chapmanRating: ★★★★☆

Brian R Chapman and Eric G Bolen. 2016. Ecology of North America. 2e. Wiley Blackwell. ISBN 978 1 118 97154 3

One of the issues faced when examining foreign ecosystems is getting sufficient background information to be enable comparison with ones better known to the reader. Anything that helps this situation creates two advantages – a better understanding of the theoretical linkages between disparate ecosystems and the ability to understand the practical aspects of plant-animal interactions. Luckily, for North American ecosystems at least, we have a solution.

This book (a second edition updating the 1998 original) combines two elements both ably expressed in foreword and preface respectively: “…[ecology is] the field of science that is the basis for all natural history… and “[this book] stems from our belief that many college students…lack much awareness about the world in which they live”. It would be hard to disagree with either point (especially as an ecologist!), but I think it reveals more than a desire to improve understanding. Readers require a solid foundation upon which to base their thinking. It needs a clear outline of the key theoretical concepts and then a decent framework from which to discuss the more practical side. As will be shown below, this book provides both but it does pose the question as to whether we should have more texts with similar knowledge structures (in the point of this reviewer, that’s a big yes!).

If the book is going to follow its own rules, it should (and does) start with an overview of ecology. Of course, the issue with this is not so much a question of what to include but also what to exclude given a massive subject and one chapter! It’s easy to point to a favourite subject missed but less easy paring down the work to a reasonable point – what is necessary and sufficient? If we go back to the book’s aim – of outlining North American ecosystems, then it becomes clear that beginners need to know about distribution and abundance. We start with the concept of ecosystem, develop into abiotic and biotic controls, consider biodiversity and a couple of interesting rules (Bergmann’s and Allen’s to help develop understanding of both species distribution and development. As it stands, this gives a decent platform for the reader (a very good set of references adds significantly to its utility).

From this point, descriptions start with Tundra and head South! Taking the ideas in the first chapter into account, we start with a overview of the abiotic factors – climate, soils, topography and glaciers. This is followed by a study of adaptations to environment  – decumbent forms, perennials etc. Of course, “Tundra” is, in reality, a mixture of ecosystems and so there’s a brief outline of the major forms. Some of the key animals are mentioned, apex predators or key species. What follows is an unusual, but effective, melange referred to as ‘highlights’. This appears to be those features unique to the tundra and the ways in which human activity is affecting it. A good set of references, divided into the key parts of the chapter, allows the reader to follow up anything needed in depth. This might seem like a simple structure but it’s very effective for the key audience i.e. those trying to learn more but who start from a limited base. As with ecology, there are any number of tomes on Tundra. The real skill, and it’s the one the authors seem to have grasped and used to good effect, is to tease out those elements of the ecosystem that define its characteristics sufficient for the beginner to understand structure and function.

In a similar vein, the authors tackle the next ecosystem on the journey South – Boreal Forest. The same approach is used but Boreal is not Tundra. Rather than fit each ecosystem into a rigid framework, we follow the rough path drawn out by the Tundra and apply those parts, in those measures, needed to understand this Northern forest system. Highlights here include the classic work on the Lynx whilst the challenges (human impacts!) include acid rain, DDT and invasive species. To add to the mix, there’s an “infobox” – a small piece on a specific area of interest, not necessarily about the ecosystem per se. Most chapters have them; Boreal’s one highlights the work of Rachel Carson and her classic, ground-breaking studies.

This approach continues with chapters on deciduous forest, grasslands, deserts, the uniquely American Chapperal, montane forests and temperate rain forests. All carry on the same structure that made Tundra and Boreal forest so useful in understanding the ecosystems. The final two chapters continue the concept but break away from the direction. Coastal environments, despite crossing numerous climatic zones, are treated as one ecosystem by virtue of the dominant abiotic conditions. Here, the ecosystem communities are not patches within a greater whole but large stretches of the coastal area – Atlantic, Gulf, mangroves, and reefs. Only the final chapter breaks the mould and does so to introduce the reader to some of the most unusual ecosystems (referred to here as “special environments”). Size and location are not important – they are seen as unique areas. The Grand Canyon, caves, mineral licks, Great Lakes (even the fossils of La Brea tar pits!): an eclectic bunch but ones with a fascinating story to help fill out this continental story.

Overall, this is an excellent text for the beginner and anyone wanting a good overview of the North American systems. The structure of the book works well – the beginner needs to know the key aspects and whereas minutiae can be helpful, they don’t help the tyro develop. What does, is this structure and the way the examples have been chosen to highlight the ecosystem but also fire the imagination. Anyone wanting to examine ecosystem development along a N-S gradient should not go past this book. Likewise, anyone wanting a decent overview for North America should make this a must-buy. The only problem is that, having read this, you want other areas to be covered in a similar fashion. One of the best written books this year.

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