Tag Archives: Ecosystems

Computer model brings better understanding of complex ecosystems

The spheres and colors represent the various species and trophic levels respectively, in Nevada Lakes, USA. (Picture Credits: Harper et al. 2005).

Numbers are numbing and data are messy. “Visualization tools can help untangle complexity,” says Eric Berlow—ecologist at Sierra Nevada Research Institute in California.  Good visualizations can bring out the details, organize information, and allow scientists to see data in a different way. A computer model called “Niche Model” emerged in the year 2000. It was developed by researchers of the applied mathematics department at Cornell University, Williams and Martinez. Before the model, many ecologists base their theories on “sharply focused” ecosystems with less species, to avoid “clutters” in their study.  However, this was problematic since it risks oversimplifying real-world phenomena.

Since 2000, Niche Model injected a healthy dose of complexity into the field of ecology and conservation biology research. By embracing the complexity, ecologists can now generate more accurate predictions that mimic real ecosystems.

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The amazing and curious world in the treetops

Photo: thaths on flickr

Is there anything more incredible than the rainforest canopy? Not very likely. The rainforest canopy – the dense area containing the majority of trees branches – is home to some of the greatest biodiversity, or biotic variety, on earth. And where else can you find a complete ecosystem with soil, megafauna, and what is estimated to be half of the world’s plant species – all off the ground?! However, what we know about these incredible “biodiversity hotspots” is very little, as rainforest canopies are among the world’s least understood ecosystems.

So unparalleled is the rainforest canopy in mystery and intrigue that naturalist William Beebe pronounced that, “another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles.” That was back in the early 1900s, and despite much research being done since then, this quote still holds true.

Among what has been discovered, The EarthWatch Institute details some stand-out research findings including the discovery of the first herbivorous spider; work suggesting that perhaps 6 million insect species exist on earth; and the uncovering of thousands and thousands of species previously unknown to us, many of them endemic – meaning they are found nowhere else in the world – to their respective rainforest canopy.

Where else can you find animals as curious as the pink-eyed katydid newly discovered in Papua New Guinea:

Photo: Naskrecki/iLCP

or the Malagasy Red-bellied Lemur?

photo: BBC

Unfortunately, the well-being of much of the world’s fascinating and mysterious rainforest canopy ecosystems is threatened by human activities. Work by William F. Laurence, published in a 1991 issue of Nature, warned that human activities causing forest fragmentation are compromising the health of these unique ecosystems. A study by Erika Styger and fellow scientists published in a 2007 issue of Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment looked at the large-scale degradation caused by slash-and-burn farming techniques. Additional research keeps pointing at humans as the cause of increasingly unhealthy rainforest canopy ecosystems.

Scientists are currently working to understand the biological and chemical processes at work within the canopy in order to gain a better idea of how we can protect these ecosystems. Some are working to document canopy species composition and interactions while others are expressing concerns over the ability of the rainforest canopy to continue supporting its species in the face of climate change – an area that is beginning to get a lot of research attention. Thus, work is being done to better understand what is happening in the mysterious and marvelous rainforest canopy. Whether we can protect the very-worthy-of-protection rainforest canopy ecosystems before their health is globally compromised remains to be seen.