In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Applied Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Agroecology
  • Biological Invasion
  • Conservation Biology
  • Restoration Ecology
  • Future Directions

Ecology Applied Ecology
David K. Skelly, L. Kealoha Freidenburg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0039


As its name suggests, applied ecology focuses on the application of ecological knowledge to address environmental challenges. Like all ecologists, applied ecologists study the distribution, abundance, and interactions among organisms as well as the ways in which organisms influence the movement of energy and materials through ecosystems. Applied ecologists have a particular interest in the ways in which organisms and ecosystems are influenced by humans. And increasingly, applied ecologists include humans as integral to the systems they study. While the term applied ecology implies the existence of basic ecology, the research aims of many contemporary ecologists embrace applied dimensions, suggesting that distinctions between applied and basic ecology can be less obvious than they once were.

General Overviews

In 1997, Peter Vitousek and colleagues published a description of the astonishing ways in which human activity has come to be a planetary force (Vitousek, et al. 1997). This paper and others appearing around the same time (e.g., Lubchenco 1998) have greatly increased public awareness of the need for ecological knowledge to sustain not just biological diversity but also human society’s standard of living. However, as Slobodkin 1988 makes clear in a brief treatment, applied ecology is an umbrella under which many topics are pursued. Whenever an ecologist carries out research for which the intended audience includes policymakers, managers, and other decision makers or practitioners, they may be said to be acting as applied ecologists. Within this broad realm, applied ecologists tend to specialize in one or more disciplines focused on particular problems (e.g., biological invasion) or specific systems (e.g., agroecology). In many cases, applied ecologists working within these disciplines seek to characterize the relationship between human actions and biological responses, to develop plans to remediate the effects of human actions, or to inform decision-making processes that regulate human activities (Hobbs, et al. 2011). With technological advances providing the means to exploit different types of data, applied ecology has ventured into increasingly diverse realms. For example, remote sensing techniques provide increasingly detailed information about vegetation cover, and, when combined with time series data, can prove invaluable in the evaluation of myriad ecological questions (Cohen and Goward 2004). While applied ecology can be defined very broadly to include disciplines such as climate change science, epidemiology, and forestry, it is usually confined more closely to those fields that have emerged from the development of modern ecology. This bibliography includes coverage of four such fields—Agroecology, Biological Invasion, Conservation Biology, and Restoration Ecology—that constitute a representative rather than an exhaustive list. In each field, ecologists have focused on entire systems and on reliance on a combination of mathematical tools (Caldwell 1966) and on field-based observation and experimentation (Lubchenco 1998).

  • Caldwell, Lynton. 1966. Problems of applied ecology: Perceptions, institutions, methods, and operational tools. BioScience 16:524–527.

    DOI: 10.2307/1293702

    An early overview of applied ecology emphasizing the potential for ecological approaches to contribute to environmental problem solving.

  • Cohen, Warren B., and Samuel N. Goward. 2004. Landsat’s role in ecological applications of remote sensing. BioScience 54.6: 535–545.

    DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0535:LRIEAO]2.0.CO;2

    A comprehensive overview of how Landsat images have contributed to a variety of ecological endeavors.

  • Hobbs, Richard J., Lauren M. Hallett, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Harold A. Mooney. 2011. Intervention ecology: Applying ecological science in the twenty-first century. BioScience 61.6: 442–450.

    DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.6.6

    A novel approach to the restoration and recovery of ecosystems. The authors explicitly take into account the difficulties in trying to restore the environment to some ideal state and offer thoughtful analysis of how to incorporate proactive measures both from an ecological standpoint as well as from a governance standpoint.

  • Lubchenco, Jane. 1998. Entering the century of the environment: A new social contract for science. Science 279.5350: 491–497.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5350.491

    Written by one of the leading applied ecologists, this paper enumerates critical tasks for ecologists and other environmental scientists while positing that there needs to be a closer connection between scientific pursuits and environmental problems.

  • Slobodkin, Lawrence 1988. Intellectual problems of applied ecology. BioScience 38:337–342.

    DOI: 10.2307/1310736

    A personal take on the goals and approaches of applied ecology by one of the most prominent theoretical ecologists of the 20th century.

  • Vitousek, Peter M., Harold A. Mooney, Jane Lubchenco, and Jerry M. Melillo. 1997. Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science 277:494–499.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.277.5325.494

    This paper crystallized appreciation of the extent of the influence of human activities on the Earth’s biological systems. By extension, it provides a clear rationale for the role of applied ecology as an endeavor critical to society. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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