Researchers have found that the loss of a key species in an ecosystem can cause a cascade effect with many other species dying off as well. However, Northwestern University physics professor Adilson Motter and his student, Sagar Sahasrabudhe are working on a theory illustrating that a mathematical understanding of how species rely upon, and react to, other species can show us if and when species will go extinct, and provide the information necessary to prevent those extinctions. Could using math help us conserve species?
According to Life Sciences World, the researchers are working on a way to illustrate how human intervention can assist conservation efforts. They’ve found that up to 70% of extinctions could be prevented if an ecosystem can return to balance using available resources before the cascade effect can get started. By suppressing, rather than increasing, the populations of particular species, an ecosystem can be returned to health, the researchers state, however, figuring out the ideal populations is the trick.
The goal of this project, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Mathematical Sciences, is to develop mathematical methods to study dynamical processes in complex networks. Although the specific application mentioned here may be useful in management of ecosystems, the mathematical foundation underlying the analysis is much more universal. The broad concept is innovative in the area of complex networks because it concludes that large-scale failures can be avoided by focusing on preventing the waves of failure that follow the initial event.
Understanding the math behind an extinction cascade after the loss of a key species is one thing — actually preventing those additional losses is another. Humans have to actually act on the information, putting conservation efforts in place effectively. Math can help us identify problems and solutions, but it’s still up to humans to take proper action.
However, the work by these researchers could be invaluable among conservationists — and apparently a number of other fields of study as well. The researchers note that their approach could be used for anything from stopping the progression of diseases to preventing blackouts in the smart grid to mitigating the effects of a financial downturn.
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[Image by Eric Wüstenhagen]