Ecology is a science, and therefore uses the scientific method as a tool to learn about the natural world.
Although there are many different versions of the scientific method in use today, all are based on making observations, asking questions and looking for answers to questions through science experiments.
This is the logical problem-solving method used by scientists to understand how the world works.
In the examples you will see how ecologists:
An ecologist always begins research by making observations. Observations have to be accurate. If they are not, then research based on these observations will be useless.
Questions and Hypothesis
Observations raise questions like “why do elk eat so many leaves?” Ecologists carefully select testable questions to research
A hypothesis is a possible answer to the research question. For the same problem, the ecologist can have multiple suggested answers (multiple hypotheses).
- Hypothesis: Elk prefer leaves over grasses because leaves are more nutritious.
From a hypothesis the ecologist can derive predictions.
- Prediction: Elk offered the same amount of leaves and grasses would prefer leaves.
To find out if these predictions are true, the ecologist designs an experiment which can be conducted:
In the lab:
The ecologist carefully manipulates only the variable being measured.
- Elk can be held in a corral and presented with grasses and leaves; then ecologists can measure what elk eat the most.
In the field:
The ecologist sometimes cannot manipulate the variable they are measuring, so they rely on more observations.
- The ecologist records what elk eat (leaves or grasses) and measure the amount of leaves and grasses available to elk in the wild.
After analyzing the data, the ecologist compares the results with the predictions.
- If the data agrees with the predictions, the initial hypothesis is confirmed, and the problem is solved or the question is answered.
- If the data disagrees with the predictions, the initial hypothesis is rejected and the ecologist starts over with a different hypothesis.
At this point, the ecologist often has new observations and questions based on what was learned… so more hypotheses are developed and more experiments are designed.