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Study may help predict extinction tipping point for species
Date:9/8/2010

Athens, Ga. What if there were a way to predict when a species was about to become extinctin time to do something about it?

Findings from a study by John M. Drake, associate professor in the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology, and Blaine D. Griffen, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, may eventually lead to such an outcomeand that is only the start. Their study also has implications for understanding drastic, even catastrophic, changes in many other kinds of complex systems, from the human brain to entire ecosystems.

The paper, "Early warning signals of extinction in deteriorating environments," published in the early online edition of the journal Nature, describes a study of the fluctuations in experimental populations of water fleas (Daphnia magna) undergoing environmental stress until they reach a tipping point beyond which they do not remain viable. The study is unique in its careful comparison of these stressed populations with other, healthy populations in the context of new theories about dynamic systems undergoing transitions at a tipping point, particularly a phenomenon known as "critical slowing down."

"This is the first experimental demonstration of critical slowing down in a biological system," said Drake. He explained that critical slowing down is a term used to describe a pattern in data that has previously been observed in physics and the Earth sciences, but until now has been only a theoretical possibility in biology. It describes the decreasing rate of recovery from small disturbances to a system as it approaches a tipping point. When a system is close to a tipping point, it can take a long time to recover from even a very small disturbance. "The theory was originally used to describe drastic changes in other kinds of systemseverything from epileptic seizures to regime shifts in the earth's climate system," Drake said. "But these attributions of CSD primarily have been after-th
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Contact: John M. Drake
jdrake@uga.edu
706-583-5539
University of Georgia
Source:Eurekalert

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