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Good Reads  Ecology  Ecological Theory & Practice

Serendipity An Ecologist's Quest to Understand Nature

Biography / Memoir
By: James A Estes(Author), Harry W Greene(Foreword By)
275 pages, 19 b/w photos, 14 b/w illustrations, 3 b/w maps
An insightful look at trophic cascades and an open-hearted insider account of the ways of ecological research.
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  • Serendipity ISBN: 9780520377493 Paperback Nov 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Serendipity ISBN: 9780520285033 Hardback May 2016 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book

To young biologist James Estes, the sea otters he was studying in the leafy kelp forests off the coast of Alaska appeared to have an unbalanced relationship with their larger environment. Gorging themselves on the sea urchins that grazed among the kelp, these small charismatic mammals seemed to give little back in return. But as Estes dug deeper, he unearthed a far more complex relationship between the otter and its underwater environment, discovering that otters played a critical role in driving positive ecosystem dynamics. While teasing out the connective threads, he began to question our assumptions about ecological relationships. These questions would ultimately inspire a lifelong quest to better understand the surprising complexity of our natural world and the unexpected ways we discover it.

Serendipity tells the story of James Estes's life as a naturalist and the concepts that drive his interest in researching the ecological role of large predators. Using the relationship between sea otters, kelp, and sea urchins as a touchstone, Estes retraces his investigations of numerous other species, ecosystems, and ecological processes in an attempt to discover why ecologists can learn so many details about the systems within which they work and yet understand so little about the broader processes that influence those systems. Part memoir, part natural history, and deeply inquisitive, Serendipity will entertain and inform readers as it raises thoughtful questions about our relationship with the natural world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Insightful and open-hearted
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 21 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.

    Estes’s story begins in 1970. Narrowly avoiding being drafted into the Vietnam war as a soldier, he ended up in the Aleutian archipelago, the chain of islands that are strung between Alaska and Russia, to research the population status of sea otters in the area. Little did he know he would return here time and again for the next 45 years.

    At the time, when ecologists wrote and thought about food chains and food webs (the plants and animals connected to each other because they are each other’s food), they focused mostly on bottom-up forcing. This is the idea that the lower levels in such a chain, for example the abundance and productivity of plants, influence higher levels, such as the abundance of their grazers and in turn the predators that eat those grazers. The notion that the arrow of causality could also point the other way, top-down, with predators impacting herbivores impacting plants, was not much considered, if at all.

    As described here, much of Estes’s career has revolved around showing the presence and importance of top-down forcing in food webs. It started with him noticing differences between islands with and without sea otter populations. Where sea otters were present, they preyed on sea urchins, which prevented kelp from being grazed, resulting in flourishing kelp “forests”. Without sea otters, the urchins thrived, grew large and munched their way through the kelp, leaving a barren underwater landscape.

    From those initial observations, Estes chronologically explains how he expanded on those findings, showing this occurred around islands throughout the Aleutians, impacted other animals in this food web (fish, sea stars, even eagles), and affected the coevolution of chemical defences of kelp in response to predation by sea urchins. When the sea otter populations sharply declined in the 1990s, observations pointed to orcas having switched diet. In yet another example of a trophic cascade, Estes links this to a hangover from intensive whaling during the 1960s and ’70s. Bereft of their prey, orcas switched to smaller marine mammals, causing populations of one after the other species to crash. This, in turn, had knock-on effects elsewhere, showing how human impact can ripple through an ecosystem (see Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems for more on this).

    And the net is cast wider still, as further research showed that trophic cascades can cross from marine into terrestrial ecosystems. A final noteworthy achievement in this field was to bring together ecologists studying all of the Earth’s major ecosystems to exchange experiences and views, revealing that top-down forcing occurs in food webs throughout ecosystems, not just marine ones (that meeting resulted in the book Trophic Cascades).

    Doing observations and measurements on animals in the wild is – I can tell you from experience – a sometimes nerve-wracking undertaking. Estes lively details the many questions, worries, and unknowns as he embarked on new research projects. How do you measure sea otter abundance when there are no established protocols? How do you turn a hunch into a dataset that withstands academic scrutiny? How do you deal with logistical limitations? Without going into the nitty-gritty, he nevertheless provides plenty of details on hypotheses formulated, measuring protocols used, choices made, problems encountered, statistical analyses employed, and so forth. For general readers, some of this might be a bit much, but for biologists and ecologists (especially those just starting out) this will be a very interesting aspect of the book, and not a little bit reassuring. From the polished publications of senior researchers, you might almost forget that they had their own struggles back then.

    What really struck me is the almost searing honesty and openness with which Estes narrates how some of his ideas were wrong, how some of them were initially just suspicions that required more work to pass the gauntlet of peer review, and what the limitations of some of his conclusions are. I found his last chapter, in which he looks to the future of the field, particularly interesting. This kind of epilogue is not uncommon in academic books. But for an author to not just write what research should be done, but to also explicitly write what we should stop focusing on, and where further research would be a waste of effort, now that is something you do not see often.

    Some of that soul-searching might have resulted from the unexpected controversy that erupted when Estes suggested that orcas were responsible for the sudden decline in sea otters as a result of earlier whaling. Dubbed the “megafaunal collapse hypothesis” in the literature, a segment of the marine science world did not take kindly to it at all (much to my surprise, to be honest). Estes here spends several chapters explaining what he based these ideas on and how he dealt with the subsequent fall-out. He does so with the care and circumspection of someone who has been scarred by the experience.

    Serendipity is full of colourful anecdotes, as 45 years of fieldwork provides plenty of hair-raising fodder, but the book always has its eye firmly on the science. The way Estes describes it, his battle is far from over. The idea of top-down forcing in food chains is still not widely accepted in some quarters and plenty of scepticism remains. In my opinion, however, he convinces that trophic cascades are an important part of how ecosystems function. On top of that, Serendipity is both a fascinating memoir and an intimate and insightful look at how ecological research is done in practice. Readers interested in ecology and marine biology, in particular, will find much here to enjoy.
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James A. Estes is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz. A respected marine ecologist who integrates long-term field observation with groundbreaking theory, Estes is a world expert on sea otters and their integral role in kelp forest ecosystems. He was senior editor of Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems (2007) and coeditor of Trophic Cascades: Predators, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature (2010) and of The Community Ecology of Sea Otters (1988). He is a recently elected member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biography / Memoir
By: James A Estes(Author), Harry W Greene(Foreword By)
275 pages, 19 b/w photos, 14 b/w illustrations, 3 b/w maps
An insightful look at trophic cascades and an open-hearted insider account of the ways of ecological research.
Media reviews

 "Many of the findings in the book [...] are classics of ecology [...] A rare and delightful insight into timely science."

"Estes's refreshing narrative deftly weaves rigorous science with personal reflection to create an absorbing and introspective read that is equal parts memoir, ecological textbook, and motivational guidebook for young ecologists."

"An insightful reminder that when observing nature, there is always much more than meets the eye."
The Scientist

"This top-down picture – with predators influencing the health of plants – is depicted in enthralling detail."
The Guardian

"Noteworthy [...] Summing up: Recommended."

"James Estes's career and writings have demonstrated repeatedly that a top-down, predator-mediated view of ecosystem dynamics can explain a lot about nature's structure and dynamics. Reading this book will reward any naturalist/ecologist/modeler."
– Michael E. Soule, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Cruz; cofounder and first president of the Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlands Network

"This is a phenomenal book! Filled with fascinating and insightful stories told without bravado, it offers excellent advice to young scientists in the context of the development of a distinguished career. Estes's compelling narrative makes ecosystems come alive, and the result is that we learn the details of phase shifts, otter physiology, and urchin gametes without even realizing that we are learning."
– Loren McClenachan, Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College

"Serendipity does what few science books written for a general audience do: it reveals a preeminent marine ecologist's professional journey into science, and the astonishing turns that led to major breakthroughs and challenges along the way. Nobody could write this better – Estes has walked the walk."
– Cristina Eisenberg, Chief Scientist, Earthwatch Institute, and author of The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America's Predators

"If you like Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, you will relish Serendipity, a remarkable journey of discovery – the modern version of challenge, intellectual and physical. From mollusks to whales, predators to people, James Estes unearths the dynamics of ecological interaction in a remote and wild place. Rich, innovative, and insightful, this beautifully written account is reminiscent of tropical expeditions 150 years earlier. But its messaging is relevant to today – over-harvesting, climate change, human impacts. Whereas Wallace and Darwin brought us theory and natural history, Estes agitates deeply: how science is done, how discoveries are made, and why results are challenged. Anyone interested in understanding why science matters for the trials facing our planet should start here."
– Joel Berger, Senior Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society, and author of The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World

"An inspiring voyage to the end of the Earth: the Aleutian Islands and the Arctic, populated by sea otters, polar bears, and walruses. Incredibly crafted to show the inner workings of a great naturalist, this memoir reveals Estes's 'aha moments' during his discovery of a voracious keystone species in an underwater seascape as wild, but even colder, than where George Schaller worked on gorillas, lions, and pandas."
– Drew Harvell, Associate Director of Atkins Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University, and author of A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

"Serendipity is the amazing story of one of the world's most respected marine ecologist's lifelong quest to understand trophic cascades and their ecological impacts. Intertwining his own personal history with that of the North Pacific Ocean, Jim Estes entertains readers and inspires young scientists, but he also provides wise and well-documented counsel to those who want to conserve large predators [and] the nature they sustain in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide."
– Mary Power, Professor, University of Californioa, Berkeley; past president, Ecological Society of America

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