Monica G. Turner

Monica G. Turner
Monica G. Turner
  • From:

    University of Wisconsin–Madison │ Madison, Wisconsin

  • Year:


  • Subject:

    Earth and Environmental Science

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    For her contributions to our understanding of how changes in large-scale patterns associated with natural processes, such as forest fires, and human activities, such as urbanization, can affect not only ecological systems but also the social and economic well-being of society.

The tools ecologist Monica Turner uses in her research are unusual, including bear repellent, a bicycle-mounted weather station, protective eyewear, canoe, compass, and the occasional helicopter. With such tools and more traditional scientific gear, Turner has confronted wildfire, dense forests, and the urban jungle. Turner’s work was critical in establishing the field of landscape ecology, which focuses on broad-scale ecological and environmental change. Key to her approach has been the integration of human impacts into ecological studies. Her work, published in more than 275 research articles, has provided 30 years of insights on forest recovery following the 1988 Yellowstone fires and on how ecosystems respond to human land use. Turner has also given scientists new understanding and novel methods for tackling the great ecological problem of our age—climate change.

There are many paths to success, and many of the paths taken by Monica Turner include treks across nature’s landscape. She has hiked for miles to reach Yellowstone National Park’s most remote areas and to traverse dense forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Turner has also used helicopters to survey landscapes scorched by fire, boats to reach study sites across clear mountain lakes, and bicycles to document urban hotspots. A professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Turner was among the first in the U.S. to extend landscape ecology concepts emerging in Europe to America’s vast terrain.

Growing up in New York’s Long Island suburbs, Turner wasn’t exposed to much wilderness. Yet she enjoyed family camping trips and Girl Scout overnights and thought maybe she would become a forest ranger or a veterinarian. Fordham University in the Bronx seemed an unlikely place to cultivate a woodland passion, but in 1978, between her junior and senior years, Turner took a summer ranger naturalist job at Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful, heading out west for the first time. That summer changed her life. 

She returned to Fordham captivated by Yellowstone’s wilderness and determined to pursue a career that would enable her to enjoy the outdoors. At Yellowstone, she had met college professors who taught during the school year and worked summers as seasonal rangers. Turner thought that would be her path to a nature-filled life, and earning a doctorate in ecology would be the ticket. Graduate school changed her mind, not about wilderness, but she discovered her love of research.

At the University of Georgia, Turner was mentored by the renowned ecologist Frank Golley. With guidance from Golley and support from the National Park Service, Turner explored how disturbances affected salt marshes on Cumberland Island National Seashore. To her surprise, Turner discovered a passion for framing research questions, collecting data outdoors, and analyzing the results. After earning her Ph.D., she continued in research as a postdoctoral fellow with Eugene Odum at the university’s Institute of Ecology.
Traditionally, ecology had focused on small study areas or a single ecosystem, but Turner’s interests were expanding to much larger regions that included different ecosystems. She was excited by new ideas flowing from Europe about “landscape ecology” that might allow her to decipher the intricate patchwork of habitats she could see from airplane windows. How and why did these landscape patterns form? What impacts did they have on plants, animals, and ecosystem processes? To jumpstart this new research area, Turner and Golley organized the first U.S. conference for researchers who shared these interests. That 1986 meeting is credited for nurturing the nascent field of landscape ecology in America. 

In 1987, Turner took a position as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As part of a highly collaborative team, she began to study how and why landscapes change, and how vegetation patterns affect the movement of organisms and the spread of natural disturbances. She needed a real landscape in which to test her theoretical models of disturbance spread, and she asked another ecologist, Bill Romme, whether his unique maps and data for fire history in Yellowstone would work. Ironically, when the two met in Yellowstone in 1988 to begin that study, the forest was on fire—and that summer sparked decades of collaborative research.

The 1988 fires were the largest in Yellowstone’s recorded history, sweeping through more than a third of the park. After autumn snows finally extinguished the flames, Turner and Romme viewed miles of blackened landscape from a helicopter. Surprisingly, they observed a mosaic of burned and unburned forest, not the “moonscape” of devastation they had expected. Here was a complex landscape pattern amidst the ashes, a natural experiment that offered the scientists a unique opportunity to learn how forests respond to large severe disturbances.

As the charred forest bloomed during the early years, the ecologists were astonished by the speed of Yellowstone’s recovery. Lodgepole pines produce cones that stay closed for decades, releasing their seeds only when the heat of fire causes them to open. By summer 1989, millions of pine seedlings had already germinated in the blackened soil. Seedlings of aspen, long thought only to grow clonally in the Northern Rocky Mountains, also established in the burned pine forests, miles away from the nearest mature aspens. Turner followed the rebirth of Yellowstone year after year, tracking species distributions, tree growth, nitrogen cycling, and even microbial communities in the soil. Her data showed, at unprecedented scale and exquisite detail, how a large forest landscape rebounds from disturbance. The 1988 fires were not an ecological catastrophe!

Even after Turner moved her lab to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1994, she continued her long-term research in Yellowstone. Turner’s team continues to make new discoveries about how the forests function, and how different disturbances interact. Wildfire, Turner discovered in 2016, can slow subsequent outbreaks of native bark beetles by changing the availability of suitable host trees across the landscape. Her focus now is on the future, especially whether and how the remarkable resilience of Yellowstone’s forests can keep pace with a warming climate and more fire.

In Wisconsin, Turner has studied ecological effects of human land-use patterns, such as how removing trees affects lakeshore habitat, how agricultural runoff impacts freshwater quality, and ultimately how the landscapes in which people live and work can be managed sustainably. In the Southern Appalachians, Turner and her long-time collaborator, Scott Pearson, were able to separate the effects of historical and current land-use patterns on forest wildflowers, bird communities, invasive species, and soil processes. More recently, Turner also turned her attention to urban land use and the benefits nature provides to city dwellers. In 2018, Turner’s graduate student, Carly Ziter, crisscrossed Madison on a bike mounted with a weather station, logging 500 miles while measuring summer air temperature. They learned that at least 40% tree canopy cover is needed to get relief from daytime summer heat. Collectively, these projects explore the ecological impacts of the decisions we humans make about how we use our land.

Thanks in part to Turner’s influence, the field of landscape ecology has matured and is in position to tackle issues of sustainability and climate change. Meeting future challenges depends on the next generation of ecologists, and Turner has done her part, having mentored 30 graduate students and 21 postdoctoral fellows. She proudly references her own two children while advocating that all scientists pursue a sustainable work/life balance. Turner strongly believes that scientists need not sacrifice their personal lives for science, nor sacrifice science for their personal lives.

Turner’s honors include the 2008 Ecological Society of America’s Robert H. MacArthur Award, the 2008 International Ecology Institute’s Prize in Terrestrial Ecology, and the 2003 International Association for Landscape Ecology’s Distinguished Scholarship Award. She also served as president of the Ecological Society of America in 2015–16 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Monica Turner played a key role in understanding the effects of the Yellowstone fires, one of the great unplanned ecological experiments of our age. The lessons learned from Yellowstone are highly relevant today, as fires increase worldwide with climate warming. But perhaps what is most impressive is her unrelenting drive to discover how and why the ecosystems around us work as they do. 

Information as of March 2020