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American Naturalist

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Abstract/ Summary

We have reviewed the considerable body of research into the sea urchin phenomenon responsible for the alternation between macroalgal beds and coralline barrens in the northwestern Atlantic. In doing so, we have identified problems with both the scientific approach and the interpretation of results. Over a period of approximately 20 years, explanations for the phenomenon invoked four separate scenarios, which changed mainly as a consequence of extraneous events rather than experimental testing. Our specific concerns are that results contrary to the keystone-predator paradigm for the American lobster were circumvented, system components of the various scenarios became accepted without testing, and modifications of some components appeared arbitrary. Our review illustrates dilemmas that, we suggest, have hindered ecological progress in general. We argue for a more rigorous experimental approach, based on sound natural-history observations and strong inference. Moreover, we believe that the scientific community needs to be cautious about allowing paradigms to become established without adequate scrutiny.

Citation/Publisher Attribution

Elner RW, Vadas RL. Inference in Ecology: The Sea Urchin Phenomenon in the Northwestern Atlantic. American Naturalist. 1990;136(1): 108-125. Available online at

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Copyright 1990 by University of Chicago Press




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