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Modeling Ecosystems
Alex Steffen, 10 Aug 04

Nature is mind-bogglingly complex. The natural ecosystems we hope to preserve are also under extraordinary pressures -- climate change, ozone depletion, pollution, habitat destruction, the introduction of alien species... the list goes on.

But what do we do? How do we best act to preserve and restore ecosystems we can barely understand, much less make predictions about?


One part of the puzzle lies in our increasing ability to simulate the real world. We've already written about our ability to monitor natural systems and the power of virtual environments to mimic evolutionary processes. Now, the journal Conservation in Practice brings us an exploration of the ways in which virtual models of ecosystems are informing our understandings of the real things:

"It would be a great boon to conservation biologists... to be able to model how the extinction of a threatened species or the addition of an invasive species will alter an ecosystem. Such changes ripple through the food web, changing who eats whom in ways that are sometimes profound, yet are rarely obvious. Any ecosystem worth preserving typically has hundreds or thousands of plant and animal species, and nearly all the animal species are both predator and prey. (Even an eagle is prey to its parasites, for example.) A graph of these interrelationships—a food web—is intimidating in its complexity.

Food webs, in other words, are just the sort of matrices that appeal to mathematically minded theorists such as Neo D. Martinez, Visiting Professor of Nonlinear Systems at Cornell University’s Center for Applied Mathematics, who is based at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). Undeterred by the earlier failure of famous ecologists to devise accurate theories of food webs, Martinez has spent the past dozen years both adding to the matrix of data and, more significantly, peering through the fog of complexity to the simple, invariant rules underneath. Using statistics and computer simulations, Martinez and his current and former RMBL postdoctoral researchers1 seem to have uncovered some fundamental properties shared by most—perhaps even all—natural ecosystems."

There's a convergence coming here, between simulations and models, monitoring and citizen science, theoretical ecology and systems thinking, that promises to not only transform our understanding of the ecosystems we live embedded within, but also give us unprecedented, perhaps unimaginable, new tools for the vital job of managing the planet.

(If you're really into this stuff, you ought to check out the Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab.)

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We may be gaining tools to do "the vital job of managing the planet," but I wonder where the wisdom needed to appropriately use those tools will come from.

Posted by: doug brown on 10 Aug 04



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