MEES660 – Ecological Foundations

Fall 2016 Syllabus


Course lecturers

This course will be co-taught during the Fall 2016 semester by Drs. Hilderbrand and Woodland. Classes taught by Dr. Hilderbrand will take place in room 109 at the Appalachian Laboratory and those taught by Dr. Woodland will be in the Bernie Fowler Lab classroom #1102. The course will be offered over the Interactive Video Network (IVN) system (bridge number 802110). Contact details for both faculty are:

Dr. Ryan Woodland
UMCES/Chesapeake Biological Laboratory
146 Williams Street
Solomons, MD 20688

Dr. Robert Hilderbrand
UMCES/Appalachian Laboratory
301 Braddock Road
Frostburg, MD 21532

Course Description and Rationale

A broad understanding of ecological concepts is required of all students who will take ecology courses within the MEES (Marine, Estuarine and Environmental Science) program. This course provides an introduction to the field of ecology for matriculating graduate students and prepares them for more advanced concepts. We emphasize a “hands on” approach to learning ecology, both inside and outside of the classroom. Students will be exposed to ecology both in theory and practice, through lectures, readings, and discussions with practitioners using foundational and advanced concepts in their jobs. In addition, students will complete quantitative exercises and lead a series of debates focused on classical and topical issues/questions in ecology. The concept of global change will be a constant, unifying thread throughout this course. As the footprint of human activities on ecological systems continues to expand during the anthropocene, it has become critical for today’s burgeoning scientists to understand the role of humans as drivers of ecological change at multiple scales. This course will provide students with the background to pursue advanced graduate level courses in their specialized areas of interest.


Lectures below are distributed across the semester assuming 29 class timeslots. Lectures will be recorded and will be made available to students upon request. We have assigned the lectures across six modules representative of introductory materials as well as a hierarchical view of ecology from fundamental properties to ecosystems. During class, instructors will provide lecture material for ⅔ to ¾ of class time followed by a minimum of a half hour time devoted to in-class discussion or debates delving into the primary literature, or quantitative exercises. The syllabus below outlines general numbered lecture subject material. In each module, the topics for the debates and the quantitative exercises are briefly described.

DATE Class Topic Lecturer
I. Introduction to Ecology
30-Aug 1 Course organization & the philosophy of science Hilderbrand
1-Sep 2 What is ecology? The Ecological toolbox Hilderbrand
6-Sep 3 Patterns: Biogeography; Diversity Hilderbrand
II. Fundamentals – Energy, Physiology, Adaptation
8-Sep 4 Energy sources, flows, and cycles Hilderbrand
13-Sep 5 Physiology and metabolism Hilderbrand
15-Sep 6 QE 1: Photosynthesis-Irradiance relationships Hilderbrand
20-Sep 7 Mechanisms of adaptation and evolution Hilderbrand
III. The Individual
22-Sep 8 Genetics Hilderbrand
27-Sep 9 Life history Hilderbrand
29-Sep 10 Bioenergetics Hilderbrand
4-Oct 11 QE 2: Bioenergetics exercise Hilderbrand
6-Oct 12 Round table discussion with practitioner Woodland
11-Oct 13 Debate 1: r- versus k-selection, is it still relevant? Woodland
IV. The Population
13-Oct 14 Was Malthus right? Predator-prey dynamics Woodland
18-Oct 15 Niche theory Woodland
20-Oct 16 Viability and persistence Hilderbrand
25-Oct 17 QE 3: Building a predator-prey dynamics model Woodland
27-Oct 18 Round table discussion with practitioner Woodland
1-Nov 19 Debate 2: SLOSS revisited Hilderbrand
V. The Community
3-Nov 20 Assembly rules - why can't we all just get along? Woodland
8-Nov 21 Diversity, stability and resilience Woodland
10-Nov 22 QE 4: Quantifying a community Woodland
15-Nov 23 Round table discussion with practitioner Woodland
17-Nov 24 Debate 3: Diversity and stability Woodland
VI. The Ecosystem
22-Nov 25 Does 1+1 =2? Mass-balance and stocks/flows Woodland
29-Nov 26 Networks & Ecological transition zones Woodland
1-Dec 27 Does 1+1 really = 2? Emergent properties of ecosystems Woodland
6-Dec 28 QE 5: Constructing a conceptual model (Boynton) Woodland
8-Dec 29 Debate 4: Do ecosystems seek an optimum? Woodland

Quantitative Exercises

In each module, students will complete a Quantitative Exercise (QE) that will help to reinforce concepts introduced in lectures and readings while also helping to build their personal ecological toolbox. Methods will vary from module to module, but will include statistical and mathematical modeling fitting, exploring model behavior, and identifying and conceptualizing key model parameters. At the end of each exercise, a discussion period will allow students and faculty time to review the material presented. This could include a review of the methods introduced, results of the analyses, potential applications of the approaches, and (or) potential alternative approaches to problem solving.

Module 1: Students will explore photosynthesis-irradiance relationships. This will include sensitivity analysis of PI model parameters, as well as curve fitting of actual data and a discussion of the modulating role of environmental conditions. Students will be introduced to the R programming language.

Module 2: This exercise will expose students to aspects of life history and bioenergetics modeling. Analyses will provide students with insight into the interactions between alternative life history strategies, bioenergetics and individual-level consequences.

Module 3: The quantitative activity for Module 2 will focus on computing metrics of diversity and introducing students to basic ordination techniques. Statistical treatments of univariate and multivariate community data will be discussed and students will be complete an R-based analysis of community data.

Module 4: This quantitative exercise here will focus on building a mechanistic model, using Lotka-Volterra dynamics as a benchmark for describing predator-prey interactions. Classic and novel predator-prey datasets will be explored using Excel and R.

Module 5: We will engage in a conceptual modeling exercise in which groups of students will be responsible for constructing an ecosystem model that includes key processes and structures. Students will have an opportunity to present and discuss the specifics of their group’s conceptual model.

Student-lead Debates

In certain modules, students will be separated into groups and will participate in debates focused on classical or contemporary issues in Ecology. Students will be required to read assigned papers and chapters, however additional readings will be very helpful as students compile evidence in support of their positions and compose their arguments.

Debate 1 (Module 2): Utility of r- versus k-selected species classifications. A useful conceptual model or an outdated over-simplification? This debate will focus on life-history diversity within species, leading to a debate regarding the need to account for minority life history strategies from both a conceptual and a management perspective.


Debate 2 (Module 3): Does diversity beget community stability? Students will weigh the evidence for and against a diversity-stability relationship at the population, community and ecosystem-level

Debate 3 (Module 4): Revisiting SLOSS (Single Large or Several Small). Students will focus their primary literature readings and critical thinking on the effect of reserve area and habitat fragmentation on the preservation of biodiversity.


Debate 4 (Module 5): Can goal functions be applied to ecosystems?  This will delve into systems literature to evaluate various goal functions (maximum power, maximum entropy, etc.) and lead to discussion of whether ecosystems may be optimized, or whether self-organization is structured by these concepts from optimal control theory.

Round table discussions with experts/practitioners

The field of ecology is as broad as any other in the life sciences and there are many ways in which ecological theory, methods and knowledge are used to inform the real-world management of natural resources. This discussion series will highlight the contributions of ecologists working at the interface of science, management and policy. Experts will be invited to participate in round table discussion sessions with students in person or via audio/video conference technology (e.g., IVN, Skype, Adobe Connect).

**Expert lists and discussion material provided below are tentative and not yet final (individuals are currently being contacted to participate in the course). Examples are provide as an example of the type of individuals we hope to attract and the avenues of discussion we foresee for the students.

Module 3: The Individual – This round-table discussion will focus on how variability at the level of the individual can resonate at the population or meta-population level and how those relationships can be quantified and then applied in management decisions.

Module 4: The Population – Discussion will focus on the interaction between human activities and local wildlife population dynamics. Special emphasis on spatial modeling and population dynamics and how human-wildlife interactions can be used to inform conservation efforts (Jennifer Murrow - tentative)

Module 5: The Community – Discussion will focus on how biological indicators are derived and how those indicators of then interpreted and applied to inform management decisions (Roberto Llanso - tentative)


Learning Outcomes

1.     Students will learn basic theoretical concepts underpinning the field of ecology, and how these are applied to different ecological approaches.  These include the following:

a.     Thermodynamic principles regarding energy and conservation of mass, and how these are applied to individuals, populations, and ecosystems

b.     Natural selection and its importance to individuals, populations, and communities, and how these elements influence emergent properties at the ecosystem scale

c.     The two above are most critical, but other fundamental theories to master include Liebig’s law of the minimum, biodiversity, community assembly and niche theory

d.     Concepts regarding the non-linear dynamics of ecosystems such as feedbacks, resilience, and regime shifts

2.     Students will also build a strong foundation that includes basic tools and approaches to doing ecology that include

a.     Appreciation of the roles that creativity, critical thinking, and synthesis play in carrying out ecological research

b.     Experiencing ways in which theoretical concepts may be applied to questions relevant in the real world

c.     Develop skills to critically read and integrate the scientific literature

d.     Become practiced in the use of unit conversions, especially those specific to ecology

e.     Develop conceptual models to illustrate problems and facilitate scientific synthesis

f.      Exposure to numerical models illustrative of different quantitative approaches

g.     Practice writing, with a focus on a capstone project for the semester

h.     Practice giving oral presentations

Assessment of Learning Outcomes

1.     We are applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to evaluate learning outcomes in this course, where tasks will be rated in regards to activities of remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.  Performance in these areas will be assessed through a combination of facilitated in-classroom oral debates structured around critical theoretical concepts (25%), quantitative exercises (25%), two examinations (25%), and a final paper (25%).

2.     Students are expected to read all assigned material prior to class and to come to class ready to contribute to discussions or pose any questions that arise during the assigned readings or the day’s lecture.

3.     Instructor performance will be assessed through anonymous course evaluations distributed at end of the semester.