© Russell Graham © Russell Graham © Russell Graham

Now you come to the final part of every ecological or environmental study - interpreting your results and thinking about what they mean. In actual fact, this is probably not the final step of the study but simply the next step in an ongoing and ever expanding study. But before you go on, it is essential to assess the information you have and decide on any future directions.

A big problem for an inexperienced ecologist (and other similarly interested people) is not how to interpret the data you have, but how not to over-interpret them. Keep your original questions in mind while collecting data and when trying to think about what the results might mean.


Species lists

If you are trying to put together a list of animals and plants in your area, you will want to set up a collection of descriptions and drawings (or photographs) of the different species. These can be put into a photograph album, a loose-leaf file (on good quality drawing paper) or a drawing book. Try to place similar species together; for example leafy seaweeds on one page, encrusting seaweeds on another, coiled shells on another, etc. This will make it easier to keep track of them. The advantage of using a photograph album or looseleaf file is that it is easy to add more pages as you progress.

Try not to redraw original field diagrams. If you need to do this, get someone else to check that you have accurately redrawn what you drew in the field. Do not embellish these drawings with things that you remember - or think you remember. If you are writing out the descriptions again, proofread your copied descriptions against the original data sheets, preferably with someone to help you. Do not throw away the original data sheets. Keep them safe. If something happens to your species list, it will be easier to prepare a new one from original data sheets than start collecting information in the field again.

Sooner or later you are going to want to name the different species. As explained earlier, unless you are experienced this should not be done in the field. Some groups of animals and plants are well described in many different books (see Resources section, Sheet 8), but the identities of many groups of animals or small plants are not well-documented. You may need to contact your local Museum and see if they can put you in touch with specialists. Alternatively, they may allow you to examine their collections. In the long run, a well-documented list of pictures and descriptions is of more use than a list of names which may, or may not, be correct.

If networking, you will need to send a copy of your species list to your co­workers. They should also send their list to you. Comparing these will tell you whether you seem to be are naming or describing things differently. If one group tends to have a lot of a particular species which has not turned up at all in the other area (or at the other time), assume first that it is a case of misidentification. Get together and talk. If, after this, you are sure of your identifications, then you may have discovered a real difference or change.

What, where, when?

To decide whether the numbers of different species vary from site to site or from time to time in your study area, or from area to area, you are going to have to summarize your data in tables, graphs or maps. No-one can make sense of piles of data sheets. Field data sheets are usually arranged in order by quadrats or samples, but you are probably interested in differences in the numbers of a species from place to place or time to time - not from sample (or quadrat) to sample. Think back to why you did the study. It was to find out about species in your study area in general and the samples were simply the means of getting this information. So the data have to be converted from "sample data" to "species data", i.e. all of the data for each species should be collated from the different data sheets into a summary for each species (or group of species, such as leafy seaweeds or mosses, etc.).

There are two main ways of summarizing your data - into tables or graphs. Details of how to summarise and present your information are given in Appendix 3.

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© Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities
email: rgraham@pacific.net.au