Scale‐Dependence in Ecological Systems


Scale has a profound influence on how we conduct ecological studies, interpret results and understand the links between processes operating at different rates. All of these factors profoundly influence our ability to predict responses to change. The ecological patterns and variability we observe range from millimetres to across ocean basins and from seconds to the expanse of evolutionary history. Patterns apparent at one scale can collapse to noise when viewed from other scales, indicating that perceptions of the importance of different processes vary in a scale‐dependent manner. Moreover, rather than the environment simply providing an arena within which organisms are born grow and die, many organisms interact with the environment, altering it for both for themselves and for other species. Because of these factors, studying ecological systems is far from simple and scale needs to be considered in study design and analysis.

Key Concepts

  • The pattern you see depends on the scale at which it is studied.
  • Threats from human activities occur at varying scales, from small point sources to large diffuse threats and changes in disturbance regimes across landscapes.
  • How organisms interact with the environment depends on how they perceive it and how patchy it is.
  • How an organism moves and how far it can move is crucial to how an organism perceives and responds to their environment.
  • Many organisms can alter their environment, both for themselves and for other species.
  • Connectivity between locations and habitats does occur not only for organisms but also for ecosystem processes and services.
  • Because most processes are scale dependent, studies must explicitly consider scale in their design.
  • Understanding both the scale of threats and the scale over which species live are essential for successful management and conservation.

Keywords: scale; mobility; meta‐populations; meta‐communities; meta‐ecosystems; study design; conservation; protected area networks

Figure 1. Three categories of species mobility and their implications for integrations of spatial variability over time. Species that migrate seasonally will exhibit home ranges (initial flat section of curve) much smaller than their migration distance and most of the increase in spatial scale will be incorporated within a year. Species that widely disperse within one generation as larvae, juveniles or adults (e.g. some marine invertebrates and terrestrial insects) will still exhibit home ranges on short temporal scales and dispersal over multiple generations is still likely to change geographical distributions. Species with limited dispersal at all life stages will have defined home ranges and their spatial distributions will change only slowly over multiple generations. actual intercepts, slopes and inflexion points will depend on individual species characteristics and the media through which they move (air, land and water).
Figure 2. In hierarchy theory, environmental processes set the background for small‐scale biotic processes. In multiscale theory, both environmental and biotic processes operate across the potential range of scales with interactions occurring between them.


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Hewitt, Judi E, Thrush, Simon F, and Lundquist, Carolyn(Jan 2017) Scale‐Dependence in Ecological Systems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021903.pub2]