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Using an evolutionary perspective to study prairies

While other researchers at Konza Prairie Biological Station are asking the question 'How?' Christopher Smith is asking the question 'Why?'

By Staci Hauschild



view of prairie
Photo by April M. Blackmon.


Christopher Smith, an evolutionary ecologist and professor of biology, studies the interactions between evolution and ecology, while other K-State researchers study ecosystem ecology, allowing them to learn how living and nonliving parts in a habitat work together. Smith said the main approach of ecosystem ecology is to describe how the flow of energy and the cycling of minerals through the system works together. That's not the approach he takes, though.

"I ask questions," he said. "Natural selection is a choice as to which one better uses the environment to make offspring. You can ask why is this one better than the other. It's a way of approaching why rather than just describing how things are."

Smith said all Konza Prairie projects are studied using a nonevolutionary approach, including views from physiological, population, community and ecosystem ecology. While all views of ecology can aid one another, Smith said they are difficult to combine.

"They can help each other understand things, but they tend to work separately," he said. "It's hard to make a question that involves both in the answer. If you're asking different questions you do different things. And I'm asking different questions."

For example, if an ecosystems ecologist gives a seminar on the rate of mineral movement in the soil or the rate of mineral uptake by the plants, Smith asks how the plant is built to increase its mineral uptake. "They're interested more in the movement in the ecosystem, and I'm interested in why one kind of plant is built differently then another to take something up."

Smith thinks evolutionary ecology is a good approach because it is more generalized, so there is a basic theory scientists can use to make predictions about what might happen in another ecosystem. However, he said most people are more interested in ecosystem ecology because there is an immediate practical use for the research questions they have answered.

"Anything can be looked at from an evolutionary point of view," Smith said. "It has a long-term practical use in understanding the broader picture."

June 2002