Understanding How Ecosystems Respond to Change
As species extinction accelerates because of climate change and human intervention, understanding how those extinctions impact ecosystems is vital.
University researchers are using cutting-edge tools in mathematical modeling to understand ecological food webs and their resilience to change.
“In the broad sense, we’re developing mathematical tools that can be adapted to a specific setting to predict possible outcomes to random disturbances. For example, the health of a food web can be measured by its susceptibility to an invasive species or the resilience to a species extinction,” says College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings. She and Mathematical Sciences Professor Eric Forgoston have received a three-year, $249,997 National Science Foundation (NSF) award by its Mathematical Biology program in the Division of Mathematical Sciences for their project, “Stochastic Interactions: Understanding Invasion and Extinction in Ecological Systems.”
“We will scientifically address questions about the interdependence of species and how their population changes from the impacts of climate change, human intervention and other environmental factors,” Billings explains.
By collaborating with ecologists from the British Antarctic Survey with expertise in analyzing Antarctic tundra ecosystems, the team will apply an interdisciplinary approach grounded in observable data. “While our work is general and can be used to study any food web and its associated invaders, we’ll start by considering the Antarctic food webs,” says Forgoston.
“We’ll be able to identify what makes an ecosystem unbalanced and how robust food webs are to unexpected environmental changes – whether from natural disasters or an invasive species.”
“In addition, we plan to study soil, marine, freshwater and terrestrial food webs from around the world, as well as synthetic food webs generated from a variety of mathematical models,” he adds. The project is funded by the NSF Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program, which supports opportunities for undergraduate research. Student research in applied mathematics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is a priority for Forgoston and Billings, who note the high demand for students with analytical and quantitative skill sets in industry, as well as the opportunity for and impact on a topic the public considers a priority now and for the foreseeable future.
“We’ll be able to identify what makes an ecosystem unbalanced and how robust food webs are to unexpected environmental changes — whether from natural disasters or an invasive species,” says Forgoston. “This improved understanding will lead to scientific tools and methods that could help us protect and better manage our environment.”