Ecological Inspirations: Alex Watt’s “Pattern and Process in the Plant Community”

As we move into the Journal of Ecology’s Centenary year, it seems like an excellent time to look back at articles in the Journal archives to find out what impact they have had on plant ecologists working in the field today. Journal Editor, David Gibson, kicks off the first post for our “Ecological Inspirations” series.

Alex Watt. Image from http://www.wikipedia.org

“We must know all of it in order to know any of it” Watt (1947) paraphrasing T.S. Eliot’s commentary on Shakespeare’s work.

A few years ago I started a short-lived project to obtain photos of deceased scientists who have inspired me. I only got as far as four, but these four were Charles Darwin (obviously), Gideon Mantell (who described the first Iguanodon bones collected from a quarry in my home village), Beverly Halstead (inspiring lecturer and palaeontologist), and Alex Watt (1892-1985). Watt’s (1947) Presidential Address to the British Ecological Society has inspired me as an ecologist since I was introduced to the paper by Peter Greig-Smith, my doctoral advisor, former BES President, and Journal of Ecology Editor. I well recall Greig-Smith using Watt’s paper (“an old paper but still worth reading”) as the focus for a number of his community ecology lectures, and it is evident from his writings that it inspired him too in his studies of plant communities (Greig-Smith 1979).

Drawing upon decades of studies from seven British plant communities, Watt described the plant community as a “working mechanism” in which patches (Watt’s “phases”) constituted a dynamic space-time mosaic.  The essence of the thesis proposed in his paper is where Watt describes the plant community as “a working mechanism, which maintains and regenerates itself”.  This idea, that plant communities comprise a heterogeneous series of patches at different stages of regeneration, hardly seems radical today, but it paved the way for the patch dynamics discipline (White & Pickett 1985). Many studies published in Journal of Ecology subsequently investigated the spatial dynamics of plant communities (e.g., Thórhallsdóttir 1990), including my own doctoral studies (Gibson 1988a; Gibson 1988b). Today, we continue to investigate these issues, focusing, as Watt told us we should, on the mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe. The current interest in facilitation as a mechanism determining plant patterns under certain conditions (Brooker et al. 2008) is a good example of how we are still advancing the ideas proposed by Watt.

Others have also been inspired by Watt’s paper, which is the second most highly cited Journal of Ecology paper in one hundred years of publishing (Hutchings et al. 2012).  It was the focus and title of a British Ecological Society symposium in honour of Watt’s 90th birthday (Newman 1982), and the subject of a 50-year tribute paper (van der Maarel 1996). Watt still inspires ecologists (see Ian Lunt’s recent blogpost).  Described as ushering in the patch dynamics “paradigm shift” (Wu & Loucks 1995), Watt’s paper stands the test of time and has been an inspiration to ecologists since its publication 65 years ago.

David J. Gibson

Editor, Journal of Ecology

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