To understand ecological phenomena, it is necessary to observe their behaviour across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Since this need was first highlighted in the 1980s, technology has opened previously inaccessible scales to observation. To help to determine whether there have been corresponding changes in the scales observed by modern ecologists, we analysed the resolution, extent, interval and duration of observations (excluding experiments) in 348 studies that have been published between 2004 and 2014. We found that observational scales were generally narrow, because ecologists still primarily use conventional field techniques. In the spatial domain, most observations had resolutions ≤1 m2 and extents ≤10,000 ha. In the temporal domain, most observations were either unreplicated or infrequently repeated (>1 month interval) and ≤1 year in duration. Compared with studies conducted before 2004, observational durations and resolutions appear largely unchanged, but intervals have become finer and extents larger. We also found a large gulf between the scales at which phenomena are actually observed and the scales those observations ostensibly represent, raising concerns about observational comprehensiveness. Furthermore, most studies did not clearly report scale, suggesting that it remains a minor concern. Ecologists can better understand the scales represented by observations by incorporating autocorrelation measures, while journals can promote attentiveness to scale by implementing scale-reporting standards.

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This work was supported by funds from the Princeton Environmental Institute Grand Challenges programme and the NASA New Investigator Program (NNX15AC64G). E.C.E., J.C. and L.A. of the GLOBE Project ( were supported by the US National Science Foundation (1125210). J. Daskin, J. Socolar, C. Chang, and R. Grossman provided crucial help in developing and testing the sampling methodology.

Author information


  1. Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA

    • Lyndon Estes
  2. Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Lyndon Estes
  3. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • Paul R. Elsen
  4. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Paul R. Elsen
    • , Timothy Treuer
    •  & Jonathan J. Choi
  5. Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD, USA

    • Labeeb Ahmed
    • , Jason Chang
    •  & Erle C. Ellis
  6. Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • Kelly Caylor
  7. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • Kelly Caylor


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L.E. and K.C. conceived the study. L.E., T.T., P.R.E., J.J.C. and E.C.E. helped to design the sampling protocol. L.E., T.T., P.R.E., J.J.C., L.A., and J.C. extracted and analysed the scale data. L.E. performed the analyses and wrote the manuscript. All authors assisted with writing the manuscript and provided comments and edits.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lyndon Estes.

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