Marine Biology

, Volume 147, Issue 3, pp 823–831 | Cite as

Variation at local scales need not impede tests for broader scale patterns

  • Meegan J. Fowler-Walker
  • Sean D. ConnellEmail author
  • Bronwyn M. Gillanders
Research Article


Ecologists are not always mindful of the constraints imposed by their scale of observation and sometimes prematurely attempt broad generalisations or become mesmerised by local details depending on their predilections. We specifically chose a character that is known for its local and unpredictable variation (morphology of kelp) to test the effect of scale on our ability to determine spatial patterns. We compared the morphology of Ecklonia radiata between monospecific and mixed stands of canopy-forming algae across temperate Australia (>5,100 km coastal distance) within a hierarchy of several spatial scales. While E. radiata specimens were generally larger in monospecific than in mixed stands, we failed to observe differences in morphology between stands at many sites and locations. Despite substantial local variation, differences between stands became increasingly clear at broader scales. The frequency of inconsistent differences between stands was greatest at local scales (sites separated by kms), intermediate at intermediate scales (locations separated by 100s of kms) and least at regional scales (regions separated by 1,000s of kms). These observations support the idea that large scale patterns can emerge from apparent stochasticity at small scales, and that unaccountable variation at local scales need not impede tests for similar patterns at broader scales. Most ecologists work at scales where complexity tends to be greatest (i.e. local) and is likely to be explained by special and unique events. It is encouraging, therefore, to observe that patterns can emerge from complexity at local scales to provide new opportunities to answer some of the more interesting questions about the relative importance of processes across the vast parts of the world’s coast.


Morphological Character Mixed Stand Small Spatial Scale Western Australia Large Scale Pattern 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper benefited from the subject of study (morphology) which typifies scientific discussion; the weight of scientific uncertainty is positively related to the strength of scientific opinion. We specifically thank spirited discussions with M. Coleman, T. Elsdon, P. Goodsell, A. Irving, E. Vytopil, T. Wernberg and anonymous reviewers. We thank M. Anderson for a custom-made copy of NPMANOVA and continuing discussion on applying conceptual and quantitative ideas across broad areas of our experience. This work was supported by an ARC large grant to S.D.C. and B.M.G. and an ARC QEII Fellowship to B.M.G.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Meegan J. Fowler-Walker
    • 1
  • Sean D. Connell
    • 1
    Email author
  • Bronwyn M. Gillanders
    • 1
  1. 1.Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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