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Mathematical model could help predict and prevent future extinctions
Date:1/25/2011

In an effort to better understand the dynamics of complex networks, scientists have developed a mathematical model to describe interactions within ecological food webs. This research, performed by Northwestern University physics professor Adilson Motter and his student, Sagar Sahasrabudhe, is published in the January 25 issue of Nature Communications. The work illustrates how human intervention may effectively aid species conservation efforts.

"Our study provides a theoretical basis for management efforts that would aim to mitigate extinction cascades in food web networks. There is evidence that a significant fraction of all extinctions are caused not by a primary perturbation but instead by the propagation of a cascade," said Motter.

Extinction cascades are often observed following the loss of a key species within an ecosystem. As the system changes to compensate for the loss, availability of food, territory and other resources to each of the remaining members can fluctuate wildly, creating a boom-or-bust environment that can lead to even more extinctions. According to the study, more than 70 percent of these extinctions are preventable, assuming that the system can be brought into balance using only available resources--no new factors may be introduced.

Motter explained further, "We find that extinction cascades can often be mitigated by suppressing--rather than enhancing--the populations of specific species. In numerous cases, it is predicted that even the proactive removal of a species that would otherwise be extinct by a cascade can prevent the extinction of other species."

The finding may seem counterintuitive to conservationists because the compensatory actions seem to inflict further damage to the system. However, when the entire ecosystem is considered, the effect is beneficial. This news holds promise for those charged with maintaining Earth's biodiversity and natural resources--the health of which can co
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Contact: Lisa Van Pay
lvanpay@nsf.gov
703-292-8796
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert  

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