This title is the phrase that I used to promote the course on my social media. Other than a catchy post, this short sentence has a deeper meaning, which I think is currently very relevant and directly related with this Field Ecology course.
To say “the frontier where there is no data” does not imply people have not worked on it in the past. Indeed, it is thanks to generations of researchers working for decades that Ecology has turned into a strong Data Science. Using long term and wide-scale data sets allows for the study of temporal changes and planetary patterns. Particularly, important to understand macro-ecology and parameterize predictive models of climate change.
However, all this previous hard work has a second consequence, which is the reason for the sentence to be used in the post. That second consequence is an illusion of the completeness of our data sets. A massive amount of data makes people believe that we know more than what we actually do. Creating a sensation of a no need for further exploration; or worst, an intellectual disregard for those who do it. This underappreciation appears in various forms, such as lack of funding opportunities, difficulties to publish, or not formal academic validation of all what entails to conduct fieldwork. In a world where researchers are evaluated based on poorly thought productivity metrics, the costs-benefits of fieldwork make it a poor “business” choice.
All the work done by previous generations of scientists has given us an understanding of many general ecological patterns and the mechanisms that generate them. But, as you put a foot in the forest becomes very clear, that even if we know a lot, there are still numerous gaps in the knowledge. The wake up call of this insinuating statement is to go beyond the mesmerizing amount of existing data and step into the forest to gather the data of what has not been done yet.
Our course traveled through perhaps four of the better studied tropical forest in the world. Just as an example, La Selva was founded in 1968 and receives annually around 300 scientists. Yet, this forest still full of secrets. Secrets as a newly described species of dragonfly (Erythrodiplax laselva Haber, Wagner & De La Rosa 2015), which breeds its larvae in bromeliads. This new species was found on a plant near the academic center right next to were dozens of biologists walk by every day!
These supposedly well known forests have enough secrets for the eight Faculty Led Projects and more than ten Independent Projects which were conducted on this course. Projects for which it was necessary to step into the forest and collect novel data.
Putting all of this in perspective, we just can wonder how many secrets are waiting for us in those ecosystems where no scientists has stepped. So the invitation now is to be that scientist, walk into places where there is no data and generate it yourself. Standing on the shoulders of giants, let’s open new ground.
-Darko D. Cotoras, California Academy of Sciences (co-coordinator)