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Professor emeritus David C. Coleman publishes new history of ecosystem science

May. 12, 2010



Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: David C. Coleman, davec@uga.edu


Odum School of Ecology professor emeritus David C. Coleman has written a new ecology text book.  Big Ecology: The Emergence of Ecosystem Science, published by the University of California Press and available this month, provides a personal overview of the history and development of the science of ecosystem ecology.  Coleman has been part of the evolution of ecosystem ecology since the 1960s, when he first came to UGA as an assistant professor and research associate. 

Coleman, distinguished research professor emeritus in the Odum School of Ecology, narrates the development of ecosystem science, from the 1957 International Geophysical Year through the present, describing the major research institutions and programs created along the way, as well as the science’s pioneering figures. 

Odum School of Ecology Dean John Gittleman said, “Dave’s book is an important synthesis for ecology.  It summarizes many of the key ideas that were born out of the institute (of ecology) and now are being expanded in the Odum School.”

Coleman, the co-author of Fundamentals of Soil Ecology and over 250 other books and peer-reviewed articles, was impelled to write this book for several reasons, he says. 

“I wanted to impart some of the excitement of the early years to current students,” he said.  “I also wanted to show how foundational the efforts of the Institute of Ecology (now the Odum School) were in the development of ecosystem science.”

Coleman first came to UGA in 1965 to work at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, where he used radio isotopes to study how carbon moves through detrital food chains in old fields.  In 1972, he went to Colorado State, where he spent the next fourteen years as Senior Research Ecologist at the U.S. International Biological Program Grassland Biome and professor of zoology and entomology, before returning to UGA in 1985.  

Coleman explained that the IBP provided the first real opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration by ecologists.  “It’s now accepted that you’ll write multi-authored papers,” he said, “but that used to be practically unheard of.” 

The Long Term Ecological Research program followed the IBP.  “The LTER program couldn’t have been more different from IBP,” Coleman said, explaining that the five-to-six year funding for LTERs makes long-term research projects possible.   There are now twenty-six LTER sites, including two at UGA: the Coweeta LTER, in the southern Appalachians and the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems LTER, based on Sapelo Island. 

Coleman emphasized the importance of the cross-campus collaboration between UGA’s LTERs.  “It allows us to look at connections from the mountains to the sea,” he said.  “Furthermore, the LTERs are at such a large scale—Coweeta  covers fourteen counties and 60,000 km2—that  they require collaborative work.  You just can’t do ecosystem science alone.”

The final chapter of Big Ecology focuses on the future of ecosystem ecology: the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, the National Ecological Observatory Network, and Global Change studies. 

“This is an ecosystem textbook that covers the high points and the major personalities of the development of the science,” Coleman said.  “I’ve tried to convey the immediacy and excitement of doing ecosystem work, not just in the early days but also today. I hope the message comes across that the glorious days of ecosystem ecology are not all in the past.”

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