Shared with my colleague and friend Laurent Seuront, this page is dedicated to Serge Frontier, our mentor and a great friend, who left far too early.
The full version of the following text has been published as Seuront L & Luczak (2013) A life of systemic thinking: a tribute to Serge Frontier. Cahiers de Biologie Marine, 54, 301-306. PDF
Serge FRONTIER (1934-2011)
On July 7, 2011 the French scientific community lost one of its most memorable character. Serge Frontier (1934-2011) genuinely loved people, science, mathematics, nature, books, wine, his cats and Edgar Morin; in short, he loved and enjoyed life. During his years as a Professor at the University of Sciences and Technologies of Lille, Serge taught to generations of students, inspired a lot of them, and none were left untouched. We are two of his (many) students who were lucky enough to get out of the lecture theatres crowd, to have the privilege to create bounds with him and to receive his mentoring during the stammering of our scientific careers as Master and PhD students in the mid-1990s. Neither one of us would have gone anywhere close to where we are without his extraordinary source of inspiration — we are not taking many risks claiming that many other scientists are in the very same situation — and we dedicate this short tribute to Serge’s achievements as a systemic thinker.
S. Frontier started his career exploring the zooplankton of the Indian Ocean, and spent a significant amount of his early career working in Madagascar as an oceanographer at the Nosy Bé Research Centre of the Office of Scientific and Technical Research Overseas (ORSTOM, that became the Research Institute for Development, or IRD, in 1998), before earning his doctorate from the University of Aix-Marseille (1974). In addition to the considerable amount of work devoted to the description of zooplankton morphology and taxonomy, and their space-time patterns of abundance and diversity, Serge developed much more fundamental aspects of plankton ecology related to the optimisation of sampling and enumeration procedures, and the statistical analysis of zooplankton diversity, dispersion and microdistribution. This culminated with the publication of his first monograph, Méthode statistique (1980), which owed a lot to the a priori unfortunate confusion between the Professorship in Gynecology at the Faculty of Medicine of Rabat (Morocco), that Serge got instead of the expected Professorship in Synecology. Serge subsequently became a Professor at the University of Sciences and Technologies of Lille (Lille 1) where he taught with passion for nearly 20 years, before retiring as an Emeritus in 1997. He led during this period both the Station Marine of Wimereux, a research Department of the University of Sciences and Technologies of Lille, and a laboratory in Numerical Ecology, a discipline for which he has been recognized internationally, as illustrated by the preface of the acclaimed book Numerical Ecology by Pierre Legendre and Louis Legendre, who “acknowledge the outstanding collaboration of Professors Serge Frontier (Université des Sciences et Techniques de Lille) and F. James Rohlf (State University of New York at Stony Brook) who critically reviewed our manuscripts for the first French and English editions, respectively. Many of their suggestions were incorporated into the texts which are at the origin of the present edition”.
Among other achievements Prof. Frontier was one of the very first marine ecologists, if not one of the first ecologists, to adopt as early as the 60s a functional approach to the structure of ecosystems. In particular, in his review untitled Diversity and structure in aquatic ecosystems (1985) he was the first one to provide an objective, quantitative and sound synthesis of (i) the characterisation of the variations of structure in ecosystems from a functional perspective, though a pioneering use of information theory and rank-frequency diagrams (that he developed for instance to describe and characterize ecological successions as early as 1969 and sometime referred to as ‘the Frontier diagram’ e.g. Devaux (1976), (ii) the intrinsic issues related to sampling strategies, to subsequently develop novel procedures to assess plankton abundance and analyse the structure of plankton communities using a multivariate perspective, and (iii) to discuss the critical issue of observation scales in the understanding and modelling of ecosystems (issues that are still widely and wildly debated today; see e.g. Levin (1992, 1999, 2010), Schneider (2001), Leibold et al. (2004), Denny et al. (2004). Serge subsequently extensively developed the theoretical (and philosophical) aspects of system theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968) and complex systems (Morin, 1977, 1980) in ecology. This ultimately led to introduce a systemic approach that can be defined as a theoretical and applied framework to study complex systems sensu Morin (1980) — but see also Morin (2008) for a synthesis — hence to deal with the intrinsic complexity of ecosystems that includes a range of concepts and processes such as e.g. interactions, emergence, adaptivity and self-organisation that occur over a range of spatial and temporal scales which need to be explicitly taken into account (Frontier and Pichod-Viale, 1992; Frontier, 1997, 1999; Frontier and Leprêtre, 1998).
He was also a pioneer (Frontier and Legendre, 1986; Frontier, 1987) in identifying the potential strengths of fractal theory to address fundamental questions in these complex ecological systems, such as the dynamics of species diversity, biomass, gradients and interfaces; see also Frontier (1994) for a derivation of the Pareto distribution from a fractal model and the subsequent fractal characterisation of rank-frequency diagrams. Noticeably, his first contributions on fractals (Frontier and Legendre, 1986; Frontier, 1987) were published years before the work by George Sugihara and Robert May in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (1990), and subsequent reviews and monographs on the topic, e.g. Kenkel & Walker, 1990, 1993; Hastings & Sugihara, 1993).
The evolution of his work, that spans a range of fields including plankton ecology, benthic ecology, marine mammal ecology and ecosystem studies, together with his genuine interest in students and his dedication to teaching, led him to spend a considerable amount of work in synthesising his thinking in a series of books (Frontier, 1983, 1999; Frontier & Pichod-Viale, 1993, 1998; Frontier et al., 2004, 2007, 2008). In particular, Statistique pour les Sciences de la Vie et de l’Environnement (2001, 2007) and Ecosystèmes. Structure, Fonctionnement, Evolution (1990, 1993, 2004, 2008) became keystone references for French undergraduate and graduate students. In a publish or perish era, the amount of Serge’s publications could be considered as relatively low, but each of his papers was a major contribution to the scientific knowledge in the field of ecology. Even if his impact on the international community has been fairly limited, probably due to his preference for writing in French, it is undeniable that his early level of conceptualisation on ecosystem structure and function in the context of system complexity (Frontier, 1977, 1978b, 1985) was well in advance on his time, and is still at the core of the actual debate on ecosystem theory; see e.g. Jorgensen & Muller (2000), Jorgensen (2002), Begon et al. (2005), Solé & Bascompte (2006), Schneiner & Willig (2011).
Beyond academic performance, what will be reminded of Serge Frontier, is his kindness, curiosity and genuine interest in nearly everything. He is, and will be, badly missed.