Ecology deals with the interactions that occur among entities found forming networks that exchange energy, materials, and information among themselves and with the physicochemical environment wherein they are embedded. The components of these networks, in contrast with those characterizing organismic and cellular processes, are readily observable in nature and hold the promise of allowing for a deeper understanding of how emergent properties in complex systems are generated. As put by L.M. Simmons Jr. (1992) “An advantage of ecology is that you can see your particles. You can observe the structure, function and behavior of organisms to understand how they generate the emergent properties of complex dynamic systems.” However, this affirmation needs to be qualified in at least two ways. First, most of the time ecologists do not take full advantage of the opportunity to discuss theoretical approaches in a direct interaction with “the particles” that we can observe but speak of simplified versions or abstractions where important details, and to a great extent the real complexity of the system, is not apparent. Secondly, the commensurability of the objects of our study poses formidable challenges for understanding. Especially in terms of being able to distinguish which patterns represent the action of general principles and which represent idiosyncratic behavior.
During the workshop “Scaling biodiversity” (sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute and held in Prague last year), some ecologists discussed these ideas and agreed in that this could be an important topic for a workshop. This crystallized as the First field workshop on ecological complexity to be held in Chile during October 3-14, 2005. The main aim is to bring together representative scientists of emerging theoretical frameworks and approaches to deal with the complexity of ecological systems, to discuss potential ways of integrating them and outline the challenges that each of them face.