An Empiricist’s Guide to Using Ecological Theory

Tess N. Grainger, Athmanathan Senthilnathan, Po Ju Ke, Matthew A. Barbour, Natalie T. Jones, John P. Delong, Sarah P. Otto, Mary I. O’connor, Kyle E. Coblentz, Nikunj Goel, Jawad Sakarchi, Megan C. Szojka, Jonathan M. Levine, Rachel M. Germain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


A scientific understanding of the biological world arises when ideas about how nature works are formalized, tested, refined, and then tested again. Although the benefits of feedback between theoretical and empirical research are widely acknowledged by ecologists, this link is still not as strong as it could be in ecological research. This is in part because theory, particularly when expressed mathematically, can feel inaccessible to empiricists who may have little formal training in advanced math. To address this persistent barrier, we provide a general and accessible guide that covers the basic, step-by-step process of how to approach, understand, and use ecological theory in empirical work. We first give an overview of how and why mathematical theory is created, then outline four specific ways to use both mathematical and verbal theory to motivate empirical work, and finally present a practical tool kit for reading and understanding the mathematical aspects of ecological theory. We hope that empowering empiricists to embrace theory in their work will help move the field closer to a full integration of theoretical and empirical research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Experimental design
  • Experiments
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Mathematical models
  • Methodology
  • Theory


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