UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

Ian Montgomery
Institute of Marine Ecology, The University of Sydney


Ian Montgomery


This is an interesting product to review because it is likely that different types of people will react to it in rather different ways. Some will, I have noticed, dismiss it out of hand because "there's no substitute for studying ecology in the real world". Others will be impressed by what is, in many ways a sophisticated and flexible application with a lot of potential for making theoretical classes in ecology more interesting. Yet others may get so intrigued in trying to work out how the underlying model itself works that they get diverted from the ecological concepts that it is trying to impart.

Overview of EcoBeaker

The Program
EcoBeaker calls itself "an ecological simulation program". It is a dynamic program which cycles through a series of time-steps. During each time-step various changes occur and the results of those changes are presented. The main visual presentation is a window containing a grid, representing a location, made up of small squares, all of the same size. The squares take on different colours to represent different objects within the location. Such objects are either habitats or instances of various species. So, the grid might represent an area with patches of habitats such as prairie (brown) and grassland (green) with individual butterflies (blue) moving around the area.

Another small window, called the Control Panel, has buttons to start and stop (pause) the passage of time, to sample objects and to reset the "situation". A situation represents a particular ecological scenario and is stored in a file. 14 situations are provided, and these are used in 12 laboratories. Each laboratory has a chapter devoted to it in the "Laboratory Guide" part of the manual.

Some situations also have a graph window to plot the population of different species over time. A Species window provides a key to the objects represented by the different colours.

Behaviour of Objects
The behaviour of each object type is determined by a settlement procedure and an action procedure. A settlement procedure (e.g. "Density Dependent") determines how an object type gets into the grid in the first place while an action procedure (e.g. Picky Predator) determines how an object behaves at each time-step. These procedures are driven by parameters which are values to determine things like how fast a creature can move, how far away it can see prey and what is the food value of a prey object. Each species also has a transition matrix. This is used in situations such as succession in plant species. Each entry in the matrix determines the probability that the species will turn into another species at each time-step.

Sampling is an important part of the laboratories. There are a variety of sampling techniques including transects, quadrats, T-squares and mark-recapture. Sample data is stored in a file either for analysis within EcoBeaker or for analysis in another application such as a spreadsheet. Snapshots of windows such as graphs may also be taken. These can then be opened in other applications for editing or inclusion in reports.


EcoBeaker provides great flexibility. Although each situation is carefully set up to illustrate the points in the relevant laboratory, any feature of the situation may be altered. Object types may be added or deleted, different settlement and action procedures may be selected and parameter values may be changed. The resulting amended situations may be saved as files and it is also possible to create completely new situations.

The adventurous can reprogram or extend the existing system as the source code is provided. (Version 1.0 is written using Symantec C++ for Macintosh.)

Communication and Assistance
EcoBeaker has its own web site and the author, Eli Meir, has bravely published his email address The web site is intended to provide other laboratories not included in the release, new laboratories being developed for Version 2 and bug fixes. The site is worth a visit by anyone interested in EcoBeaker.


Version 1.0 is for Macintosh only (manual $US19.95 program $US15.00; site licenses available). Version 2.0 due out in spring (Northern) 1997 will also be available for Windows.

Manual Setting of Parameters and Runs
In Version 1.0 any alterations to a situation such as changing parameter values and adding new species must be done manually by opening various windows and making changes. This can be laborious. Further, such temporary changes are lost if the reset button is used to, for example, restart the run.

This drawback is being addressed in Version 2.0 by the addition of a macro language for controlling runs. The macro language can be used to set parameter values and to repeat runs. This would clearly be very useful for setting up laboratories. Not only would it be convenient but it would also give the trainer more control over what goes on in the laboratory.

Simulation in Education
A product like EcoBeaker raises the vexed issue of the use of simulation in education. I agree, and so does the author, with those who say that computers are not a substitute for studying the real world. However, computers can be very good at teaching the theoretical aspects of subjects. As such they are just another medium of instruction.


I think EcoBeaker is very good. It is a cleverly constructed piece of software which is easy and fun to use and very instructive. It is flexible and extensible and comes provided with a variety of scenarios for examining aspects of ecological theory and practice. The documentation is well-written and very readable. There are clear instructions for all the laboratories and a thorough user manual for the software itself. EcoBeaker is designed for use in a computer laboratory. Given a laptop (Macintosh only until Version 2 arrives) connected to a projector, it could also be very useful in the lecture theatre.
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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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