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Scientists find universal rules for food-web stability
Date:8/6/2009

The findings, published in this week's issue of Science, conclude that food-web stability is enhanced when many diverse predator-prey links connect high and intermediate trophic levels. The computations also reveal that small ecosystems follow other rules than large ecosystems: differences in the strength of predator-prey links increase the stability of small webs, but destabilize larger webs.

Natural ecosystems consist of interwoven food chains, in which individual animal or plant species function as predator or prey. Potential food webs not only differ by their species composition, but also vary in their stability. Observable food webs are stable food webs, with the relationships between their species remaining constant over relatively long periods of time.

Understanding complex systems such as food webs present major challenges to science. They can either be examined by observing natural environments, or by computer simulations. To enable computer simulations of such systems, scientists often have to make simplifying assumptions, keeping the number of model parameters as low as possible. Yet, the computational demands of such simulations are high and their relevance is often limited.

Innovative methodology

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems (MPIPKS) in Dresden, Germany, have developed a new method that allows them to efficiently analyze the impact of innumerable parameters on complex systems.

"By using a method called generalized modeling, we examine whether a given food web can, in principle, be stable, i.e., whether its species can coexist in the long term," says Thilo Gross from MPIPKS. Complex ecosystems can thus be simulated and analyzed under almost any conditions. "In this way we can estimate which parameters will keep ecosystems stable and which will upset their balance."

The method can also be used for examining other complex systems, such as
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Contact: Dr. Thilo Gross
thilo.gross@physics.org
49-035-187-11122
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Source:Eurekalert

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