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Foundations and Frontiers of Ecosystem Science: Legacy of a Classic Paper (Odum 1969)

  • Jessica R. CormanEmail author
  • Scott L. Collins
  • Elizabeth M. Cook
  • Xiaoli Dong
  • Laureano A. Gherardi
  • Nancy B. Grimm
  • Rebecca L. Hale
  • Tao Lin
  • Jorge Ramos
  • Lara G. Reichmann
  • Osvaldo E. Sala


Ecosystem ecology, like all scientific disciplines, is often propelled forward by “classic” papers that identify key concepts within the field and define the core questions for generations of scientists. Here, we examine the legacy and sustained impact of a paper long considered a classic in ecology, E.P. (Gene) Odum’s 1969 “The strategy of ecosystem development.” Odum’s paper presented testable predictions about species diversity, energy flow, and biogeochemical dynamics during ecosystem succession and provided guiding principles for environmental conservation and management. Odum’s 24 predictions on “ecosystem development” were a key component of this paper’s legacy: The framework was referenced in 62.0% and tested in 28.7% of 1598 citing papers we examined. Although we found that support for Odum’s framework grew over time, support for any particular prediction was inconsistent, highlighting the unresolved nature of some of the framework’s principles. Odum’s conceptual framework for ecosystem studies—as well as his forward-thinking attempts to connect ecosystem ecology with humans and society—continues to be pertinent to current and future research frontiers. Simplicity of the framework was its strength, and major limitation, painting ecosystem functioning in broad strokes, with no acknowledgement about interactions among the predictions. Newer generations have their work cut out for them by bridging evolutionary biology and ecosystem science or metabolic theory and ecological stoichiometry. Similarly, newer generations are using Odum’s multidisciplinary approach to address the most pressing global change issues and designing solutions that make the Earth life sustaining system compatible with growing human demands.


Odum ecological systems ecosystem science classic papers bibliographic analysis human dimensions succession research frontiers 



The authors thank the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research Program for hosting our workshop retreat and Chelsea Crenshaw for assisting with the bibliographic analysis. This research was funded by Grants from the National Science Foundation to Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, and the University of New Mexico for Long-Term Ecological Research (DEB-1235828, DEB-1026865, DEB-1637590).

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jessica R. Corman
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Scott L. Collins
    • 3
  • Elizabeth M. Cook
    • 1
    • 4
  • Xiaoli Dong
    • 1
    • 5
  • Laureano A. Gherardi
    • 1
  • Nancy B. Grimm
    • 1
  • Rebecca L. Hale
    • 1
    • 6
  • Tao Lin
    • 7
  • Jorge Ramos
    • 1
    • 8
  • Lara G. Reichmann
    • 1
    • 9
  • Osvaldo E. Sala
    • 1
    • 10
  1. 1.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.School of Natural ResourcesUniversity of Nebraska-LincolnLincolnUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  4. 4.Environmental Studies DepartmentThe New SchoolNew YorkUSA
  5. 5.Department of Environmental Science and PolicyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  6. 6.Department of Biological SciencesIdaho State UniversityPocatelloUSA
  7. 7.Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of SciencesXiamenChina
  8. 8.Center for Oceans, Conservation InternationalArlingtonUSA
  9. 9.Plant and Microbial BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  10. 10.Global Drylands CenterArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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