Scientists rely on terms to convey complex ideas but often use these terms differently. The need for ecologists to use terms consistently is debated. On one hand, if all ecologists subscribed to a single use of each term, it would be easier to synthesize results between studies and communicate findings between ecologists. On the other hand, there is no proof that standardizing terminology is necessary and it could inhibit ecologists from answering certain questions. My research investigates, and attempts to address, inconsistent terminology in ecology using ‘woodland birds’ as a case study.
I examined how consistently ecologists use the term ‘woodland bird’ and whether using the term differently impacts on ecological inference. I found that the term ‘woodland birds’ is used to refer to different groups of species. How ‘woodland birds’ are classified has a profound impact on our understanding of the ecology of ‘woodland birds’; influencing whether we believe they are declining and how we understand their response to habitat fragmentation.
I have attempted to resolve the inconsistency around ‘woodland bird’ classification two methods. Firstly, by building a model to investigate which species should be regarded ‘woodland birds’ depending on their traits and relative occurrence in woodland vs other habitat types. Secondly, by eliciting expert opinion on which species should be included in a ‘woodland bird’ community to be listed as a Threatened Ecological Community under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. There is a high level of agreement between the two methods about which species should be considered ‘woodland birds’ but they serve different purposes. The first method provides valuable insight into what makes species ‘woodland birds’. The second method devises lists of ‘woodland birds’ that, if the listing is successful, will provide national level protection to the ‘woodland bird’ community. Earlier this year, some colleagues and I applied for EPBC Act protection for the ‘woodland bird’ community (as specified by experts). I believe that the existence of a nationally listed ‘woodland bird threatened ecological community’ will motivate ecologists to study that exact group of species if they are interested in ‘woodland birds’ (rather than including different species) because it will enhance the conservation significance of their research.
My research provides proof that, at least in one instance, using terms inconsistently is detrimental. I hope that my findings will encourage ecologists to think carefully about exactly what they mean when they use ambiguous terms like ‘habitat’ or ‘fragmentation’ and when they group species into ecological units like ‘woodland birds’ or ‘invasive species’. Further, I hope that I have provided an example for how we could resolve inconsistencies around ecological terms.