Science Pops Open, Ep. 15: Foretelling a Complex Future for our Complex Ecosystems

Research fellows of the AXA Research Fund tell the story of their work to reduce an array of risks

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. Remove one link in the chain – if a given species goes extinct, for instance – and vital natural processes could fall apart. As human activities alter ecosystems, the ability to predict the consequences, and in a dependable way, becomes crucial. And that's where Phillip Staniczenko comes in. He is a physicist applying math to the study of ecology, in order to paint a more complete picture of ecosystem interactions, leading to more reliable predictions.

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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.

More Episodes of Science Pops Open:

Ep. 1 – Your body can defend itself against cancer. It just needs a little help!, with Margot Cucchetti 

Ep. 2 – Improving outcomes of crisis and conflict, thanks to an ethnographic outlook, with Ruben Andersson

Ep. 3 – After an Earthquake, the Show Must Go On, with Anna Reggio

Ep. 4 – Disrupting the Sleeping Sickness Symphony, with Fabien Guegan

Ep. 5 – Optimizing Welfare…and Equality, with Sean Slack

Ep. 6 – Awaiting Balance in the Adolescent Brain, with Kiki Zanolie

Ep. 7 – Come Drought or High Water, with Luciano Raso

Ep. 8 – Taking European Tornadoes by Storm, with Bogdan Antonescu

Ep. 9 – Learning to Tackle Climate Change Together, with Sandrine Sidze

Ep. 10 – Nourish the Children of Urban Slums, with Sophie Goudet

Ep. 11 – In Money Matters, We're Only Human, with Jeroen Nieboer

Ep. 12 – A Depressed Sense of Smell?, with Kalliopi Apazoglou

Ep. 13 – Climate Shifts Carried on a River of Air, with Nikolaos Bakas

Ep. 14 – Something in the Air Down There, with Fulvio Amato

Ep. 16 – From Childhood Illness to Innovative Antibiotics, with Agata Starosta

Ep. 17 – Plants & Poisons: Assessing Contamination in Our Environment, with Natalia Ospina-Alvarez

Ep. 18 – Voice of a storm surge, with Emiliano Renzi