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The powers and pitfalls of large-scale, unreplicated natural experiments (LUNEs)

Shanta Barley, Jessica Meeuwig | Aug 29, 2016

Shanta Barley, Jessica Meeuwig

Aug 29, 2016

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Shark fisheries have created experiments that allow scientists to test hypotheses about the role of predators on reefs.

Photo: Garth Cripps.

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Dr. Shanta Barley
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Barley, SC, Meeuwig, JJ. 2016. The powers and pitfalls of large-scale, unreplicated natural experiments (LUNEs). Ecosystems, 1-9. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-016-0028-5


  • Humans have caused the rapid demise of wildlife on Earth by altering the climate, cutting down forests and overfishing the oceans, yet we still have a poor understanding of how these changes are affecting ecosystems.
  • Our new paper urges ecologists to increase the use of large-scale natural and manmade disasters as experiments to help solve the greatest environmental challenges facing the planet.
  • Earthquakes, tsunamis and oil spills such as Deepwater Horizon have created experiments, known as Large-scale Unreplicated Natural Experiments (LUNEs), that scientists have used to understand how the world works.
  • Using the results of LUNEs is critical, especially at a time when investment in science is increasingly constrained.


Large-scale, unreplicated natural experiments(LUNEs) have a unique power to test hypotheses at ecologically realistic scales and have delivered in-sights of great power into cosmology, evolution and geology. Yet, LUNEs are relatively rare in the field of ecology and continue to meet resistance due to their lack of replication. However, in the vast majority of cases, large-scale experiments cannot be replicated for practical and ethical reasons. Here,we make the case that LUNEs have had a disproportionately positive effect on conservation policy and are a crucial next step in the extrapolation of our understanding of ecological processes from small-scale experiments to relevant scales, particularly in the context of the current ‘‘replication crisis’’ affecting many sciences. Greater inclusion ofLUNEs in mainstream ecology will help humanity to solve global problems as human transformation of the planet accelerates in coming decades.


This research was featured in a recent issue of Australasian Science.


We would like to thank the University of Western Australia, Perth, which partly funded this research via an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship to SB.