Unifying Concept of Movement Ecology Gets Scientific Recognition

A unifying concept largely developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the study of movement ecology has achieved significant international recognition through extensive coverage in the current issue of a leading American scientific journal.

Seeds of sugarcane (Saccharum spontaneum) dispersed by wind. (Hebrew University photo by Ran Nathan)

The current edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA (PNAS), contains a 76-page special feature on movement ecology, edited by Prof. Ran Nathan, who heads the Movement Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the Hebrew University’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences.

Movement ecology is a developing academic pursuit, combining expertise in a variety of fields, including biology, ecology, botany, environmental science, physics, mathematics, virology and others. It involves the study of how microorganisms, plants and animals travel from one place to another, sometimes for great distances and in highly surprising ways. This movement is a crucial component of almost any ecological and evolutionary process, including major problems associated with habitat fragmentation, climate change, biological invasions, and the spread of pests and diseases.

To promote this subject, Prof. Nathan initiated the establishment of a year-long (2006-2007) international project at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University. The results of that project, as well as contributions of other scientists from around the world, comprise the 13 articles included in the PNAS movement ecology special feature, which is highlighted on the cover page of the journal, in a podcast interview with Nathan on the American National Academy of Sciences website, as well as in Nature News and National Geographic News.

Modern movement research is extensive, estimated to yield nearly 26,000 scientific papers over the last decade. However, this research is characterized by a broad range of specialized scientific approaches, each developed to explore a different type of movement carried out by a specific group of organisms. A cohesive framework that would serve as a unifying theme for developing a general theory of organism movement was lacking.

The special feature in the current PNAS lays the foundation for movement ecology as a unifying paradigm for studying all types of movement involving all organisms. It places movement itself as the focal theme, and, by providing a unifying framework and common tools, aims at promoting the development of an integrative theory of organism movement for better understanding the causes, mechanisms, patterns and consequences of all movement phenomena.

The special feature opens with a short introductory article by Nathan, followed by a perspective paper in which Nathan and his partners from the Hebrew University Institute of Advanced Studies project – from the universities of Berkeley, Davis, Rutgers, the Spanish Research Council, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Prof. Ronen Kadmon of the Hebrew University – introduce the new conceptual framework of movement ecology.

This framework asserts that four basic components are needed to describe the mechanisms underlying movement of all kinds: the organism's internal state, which defines its intrinsic motivation to move; the motion and navigation capacities representing, respectively, the organism's basic ability to move and to affect where and when to move; and the broad range of external factors affecting movement. The resulting movement path is the fifth and final component of the proposed framework.

Nathan was chosen as the winner of the 2005 Hebrew University President’s Prize for the Outstanding Young Researcher, and was awarded the Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Humboldt Foundation of Germany in 2006. He currently chairs the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the Hebrew University.

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