Nutritional Ecology 101:
Nu.tri.tion.al e.col.o.gy (noo-trish'-uh-nl ih-koŏl'-uh-jē) - noun
It is unclear when the term nutritional ecology was first used or published. Most in the field will refer to Peter Van Soest's text, Nutritional Ecology of the Ruminant (published 1982), as the earliest use of the term. But, Van Soest didn't define the term nutritional ecology or the objectives and focus of the discipline. Literature and Google searches will reveal a few books, papers, and even a college course on the nutritional ecology of aquatic plants, microtine rodents, Hartebeests, and humans in the 1970's, yet it remains difficult to pinpoint the origin of this emphasis. With this vague origin, nutritional ecology may be most aptly characterized by Raubenheimer and Boggs  as 'a bit link art, easy to recognize but difficult to define.'
In 2009, the journal Functional Ecology published a virtual edition on Nutritional Ecology. We believe this publication will be instrumental in defining and strengthening our discipline. Among the works in this edition, Raubenheimer, Simpson and Mayntz  published a charge to nutritional ecologist to more overtly tie field ecology and animal phenotype by testing hypotheses within a quantitative framework that is nutritionally, organismally and ecologically explicit . These goals underlie our research objectives. Indeed, with this new direction, new techniques for modeling nutrient interactions, and a growing literature showing a strong connection between an individuals diet during development and the phenotypic characteristics that it displays throughout its life - its an exciting time to be a nutritional ecologist.
How do we define nutritional ecology in the Hood lab?
To us, nutritional ecology is a wonderfully integrative discipline that challenges us to integrate our interests in physiology and functional morphology to behavioral, developmental, ecological, evolutionary, and life history processes. Our overarching goal is to characterize the relative importance of the availability of nutritional resources in an animals environment to the phenotype and fitness of individuals and ultimately, to the evolution of species-specific life history characteristics.
To this end, we examine the foraging behavior of animals in the field and sample the diets they consume. We conduct captive feeding trials where diet can be carefully manipulated to address questions that couldn't otherwise be addressed. We conduct balance experiments to examine nutrient absorption. We examine the interactions between diet and individual body condition examining variables such as body fat and body mineralization. We examine the impact of diet on the performance of individuals including flight performance, bone strength, reproductive output and rates of offspring development. And, we examine how nutrient intake during development can program the adult phenotype of individuals, particularly with reference to physiological and fitness characteristics.
With such an integrative topic to address, graduate and undergraduate students in the lab have diverse training and knowledge of topics such as chemistry, physiology, anatomy, ecology, and evolution. By bringing our diverse training together, we tackle the age old adage 'you (and every other organism) are what you eat'.
1 Van Soest, P. J., Nutritional Ecology of the Ruminant. (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1982).
2 Raubenheimer, D. and Boggs, C. Functional Ecology 23 (1), 1 (2009).
3 Raubenheimer, D., Simpson, S. J., and Mayntz, D. Functional Ecology 23 (1), 4 (2009).