Year of selection 2013
Institution University College London
Country United Kingdom
Have you thanked your local ecosystem today? Through the intricate web of interactions that exist within a community of many species, ecosystems provide services that humans depend on. Pollination, soil formation, nutrient cycling, pest control: remove one link in the chain – if a given species goes extinct, for instance – and processes as vital as these could fall apart. As human activities alter ecosystems by accelerating climate change, deforestation and more, the ability to predict the consequences, and in a dependable way, becomes crucial.
Dr. Phillip Staniczenko is a physicist who uses mathematics to study ecology, applying network science to the vast amount of data collected by ecologists about the natural world. He is creating innovative methods that paint a more complete picture of ecosystem interactions, thus yielding more reliable predictions. For example, most estimates of a species’ extinction risk focus on environmental conditions, without taking into account the full range of interactions it is involved in. Phillip’s new approach makes it possible to include such fundamental factors as the presence or absence of a predator’s prey. His work goes further, too, in considering the relative strength of these connections. Information like this will help ecologists know what data is most essential to obtain meaningful predictions. With the methods he is developing, Dr. Staniczenko has already successfully predicted the effect of deforestation on a community of insects in Ecuador that serve as important agents of pest control. Next, he plans to investigate what effect omitting ecosystem interactions has had: Has it led us to consistently overestimate species extinction risk, or under? The stakes could be significant – for those species, their ecosystems, and for us.
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