Landscape ecology, as a relatively young scientific enterprise, is quite comprehensive and dynamic in its scope. As with other interdisciplinary fields, it is impossible to define precisely the domain of landscape ecological studies. To get a sense of what the scientific core of landscape ecology is, a series of key research topics based on the collective view of leading landscape ecologists and recent publications in the flagship journal of the field, Landscape Ecology (http://www.springeronline.com), are discussed here. Five key topics are highlighted in this section.
1. Ecological flows in heterogeneous landscapes. Understanding how organisms, matter, and energy affect, and are affected by, the spatial pattern of landscape mosaics is a fundamental problem in landscape ecology. Much progress has been made in unraveling the effect of spatial heterogeneity on the spread of disturbances (e.g., fires and diseases) and the influence of landscape fragmentation on population dynamics, particularly through studies of metapopulations (structurally discrete and functionally connected population ensembles). Research into the effects of landscape pattern on ecosystem processes, while still in its infancy, is currently a rapidly developing area. Important areas for future research also include the spread of invasive species, the effects of landscape structure on population genetics (known as landscape genetics), and the effects of socioeconomic processes on ecological flows in landscape mosaics.
2. Mechanisms and consequences of land-use and land-cover change. Land-use and land-cover change, driven primarily by socioeconomic processes, exerts the most pervasive and profound influences on the structure and functioning of landscapes. Thus, quantifying the spatiotemporal pattern of landscape change and understanding its underlying driving forces are essential. More effort is needed to couple biophysical with socioeconomic approaches and to integrate ecological with historical methods in the study of land change.
3. Scaling. Spatial pattern and ecological and socioeconomic processes in heterogeneous landscapes operate on multiple scales, and thus understanding the totality of landscapes requires relating different phenomena across domains in space and time. The process of translating information from one scale or organizational level to another is referred to as scaling. Landscape ecologists are leading the way in developing the theory and methods of scaling, which is essential to all natural and social sciences. However, many challenges still remain, including establishing scaling relations for a variety of landscape patterns and processes as well as integrating ecological and socioeconomic dimensions in a coherent scaling framework.
4. Coupling landscape pattern analysis with ecological processes. Quantifying spatial heterogeneity is the necessary first step to understanding the effects of landscape pattern on ecological processes. Various effects of the compositional diversity and spatial configuration of landscape elements have been well documented, and a great number of landscape metrics (synoptic measures of landscape pattern) and spatial analysis methods have been developed in the past two decades. The greatest challenge, however, is to relate the measures of spatial pattern directly to the processes and properties of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. To address these challenges, well-designed field-based observational and experimental studies are indispensable, and remote sensing techniques, geographic information systems (GIS), spatial statistics, and simulation modeling are also necessary.
5. Landscape conservation and sustainability. Because of the emphasis on broad- and multiscale patterns and processes with interdisciplinary approaches, landscape ecology is uniquely positioned to provide a comprehensive theoretical basis and pragmatic guidelines for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem management, and sustainable development. These real-world problems cannot be adequately addressed by species-centered or individual ecosystem-based approaches. How do spatial processes occurring in landscapes (e.g., urbanization, agriculture, flooding, fires, biological invasion) affect the biodiversity and ecological functioning of landscapes? How does landscape heterogeneity affect the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning? How do ecological, economic, and social processes interact to determine the resilience and vulnerability of landscapes? What are the design principles for sustainable landscapes? These are only a few of many challenging questions landscape ecology will continue to address in decades to come.
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