Complexity breeds stability?

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Young red-necked wallaby. Photo by benjamint444 licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License

Complex ecosystems may be more stable than previously thought: that’s the conclusion of a group of researchers from Japan Science and Technology Agency and Ryukoku University.

These researchers believe that this is the first time anyone has studied how the diversity of interactions between species affects the ecosystem’s stability. Previously, biological theory had suggested that a complex system was inherently unstable, but by using a numerical model and looking at the different types of interactions between species,  the authors of this study found that a variety of interactions between species can enhance the stability of the system.

This is good news, as it implies that complex ecosystems are more robust in the face of threats, which may aid researchers in combating biodiversity loss.

The research supports one side of a venerable argument about biodiversity: that the interactions between species helps maintain biodiversity and thereby reduces the chance of extinctions. The other side of the argument is that it’s the inputs to the system that matter: more rain and sunlight allow greater access to soil nutrients, and thereby foster the development of more species all along the food chain. That’s why rainforests, which receive ample amounts of rain, harbour some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth.

The argument is basically one of nature versus nurture: whether what goes into the system is more important than the maintenance. I’m not claiming that one argument is wrong and the other right: rather, both sides are important, and the question now is which will be most important over the coming decades as climate change affects our world.

[Featured image: Rainforest on Mo’orea. Photo by Tim Waters, licensed under Creative Commons.]


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