Humans are components of ecosystems: a response to “100 articles every ecologist should read”

In November 2017, the publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution of “100 articles every ecologist should read,” by Franck Courchamp and Corey JA Bradshaw, stirred the ecological community.

Timon McPhearson, an associate professor of Urban Ecology at The New School in New York City and Research Fellow at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Dagmar Haase a Professor of Landscape Ecology at Humboldt-Universität, Erik Andersson, an associate professor at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and Nadja Kabisch a research group leader at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin and guest researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in Leipzig  respond.

Mulan HsiaoLan, a research assistant in the Urban Systems Lab, collects herbaceous percent cover data in Pelham Bay Park, New York City, to track native and non-native plant responses to tree planting and management for the MillionTreesNYC Afforestation Study, which began in 2009 and is ongoing with 36 permanent plots established across the City’s parkland. Photo credit: Matthew Sussman, The New School.


The paper “100 articles every ecologist should read” is exactly the kind of synthesis we would have been grateful for in graduate school and would have generated a “must read” list for new researchers in ecology.  However, if the field of ecology accepts this list as the fundamental canon of what every ecologist should read, then future ecologists would be dealt a major disservice. The review and 100 papers included in the list represent a narrow view of what ecology is – and what an ecologist ‘needs’ to know.

For example, the field of urban ecology has not been addressed at all in this article – not even in the discussion of the representation of different fields in ecology. Similarly, social-ecological systems research, an area of study that has made significant advances in how we think about, study, and manage ecosystems in urbanizing and human-dominated socio-ecological contexts all over the world, is not represented.

We suspect this article will be influential, perhaps especially for students and early career researchers, given that it is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.  The article could even form the backbone of graduate or undergraduate curricula in ecology at universities across the world.  Such broad interest may be in part due to the title, but it is also because the list emerged from an extensive review of peer-reviewed ecology papers.  The initial list was proposed by ecology “experts” and then ranked via random-sample voting by 368 of 665 contacted ecology experts to generate the 100 most important contributions to the field.

Yet, Courchamp and Bradshaw deal the field a blow by presenting the core of the broad discipline of ecology in a way that fundamentally misses the Anthropocene context that all ecosystems now exist in, which is to say, human domination of and influence on every ecosystem on earth. The results and conclusions also disregard the enormous potential that lies in reflexive and respectful human-nature interaction, as Marina Alberti and colleagues described in a 2003 review for BioScience. To define what is important in ecology as somehow distinct from the human dominated natural world is unnecessary, biased, and even counterproductive.

It’s been over 20 years since Mark McDonnell and Steward Pickett published Humans as components of ecosystems.  This book, and related social-ecological systems research, was intended to open the eyes of ecologists to the fact that every ecosystem on earth has human drivers, influence, and impacts on both structure and function of the system.  The message is all the more relevant today.  Humans are part of ecosystems, exerting influence on them and affecting fundamental ecological processes, which in turn feedback on humans as individuals and members of societies.

In the US, senior urban ecologists Nancy Grimm and Steward Pickett served as past presidents of the Ecological Society of America, and have published seminal papers in ecology on the role of humans as fundamental components of ecosystems. Both have lead US Urban Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites for nearly two decades, in which the guiding conceptual frameworks are fundamentally social-ecological.

In Europe, China and elsewhere, there is also a wide embrace of ecosystems as social-ecological systems (Niemela et al. 2011; Wu et al. 2014). For example, the integrated view of social-ecological systems in sustainable urban development is supported by the recent European Commission’s research and innovation policy. So, it’s a bit shocking to think that decades of research linking social and ecological systems are not part of “100 articles every ecologist should read.”

We fear that missing core contributions from social-ecological systems research and from the rapidly expanding field of urban ecology threatens to push future ecological science into further avoidance of the reality of humans and their activities as fully integrated components of ecosystems. The current and next generation of ecologists should be encouraged, not discouraged, from embracing a more inclusive definition of ecology that integrates the reality of humans as components of ecosystems in ways that can help improve management in all ecosystems.

Every ecologist should read seminal papers in social-ecological systems research, in urban ecology, and in related fields of resilience and sustainability.  Such breadth will help all ecologists to support, understand, and apply knowledge based on human-environmental interactions not only in urban areas but as part of ecosystems throughout the globe.


  • Alberti, M., J. M. Marzluff, E. Shulenberger, G. Bradley, C. Ryan, and C. Zumbrunnen. 2003. Integrating humans into ecology: opportunities and challenges for studying urban ecosystems. Bioscience 53(12):1169-1179.
  • Courchamp, F. and CJA Bradshaw. 2017. “100 articles every ecologist should read.” Nature Ecology and Evolution, doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0370-9
  • McDonnell, M., and STA Pickett.  1993. Humans as Components of Ecosystems: The Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas. Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
  • Niemelä J., Breuste J, Elmqvist T, Guntenspergen G, James P, MacIntyre N, eds. 2011. Urban Ecology: Patterns, Processes, and Applications. Oxford Biology.
  • Wu, J., W.-N. Xiang, and J. Zhao. 2014. Urban ecology in China: Historical developments and future directions. Landscape and Urban Planning 125:222–233.