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Equation-free modeling unravels the behavior of complex ecological systems

March 1, 2015

Ye et al. (1) address a critical problem confronting the management of natural ecosystems: How can we make forecasts of possible future changes in populations to help guide management actions? This problem is especially acute for marine and anadromous fisheries, where the large interannual fluctuations of populations, arising from complex nonlinear interactions among species and with varying environmental factors, have defied prediction over even short time scales. The empirical dynamic modeling (EDM) described in Ye et al.’s report, the latest in a series of papers by Sugihara and his colleagues, offers a promising quantitative approach to building models using time series to successfully project dynamics into the future. With the term “equation-free” in the article title, Ye et al. (1) are suggesting broader implications of their approach, considering the centrality of equations in modern science. From the 1700s on, nature has been increasingly described by mathematical equations, with differential or difference equations forming the basic framework for describing dynamics. The use of mathematical equations for ecological systems came much later, pioneered by Lotka and Volterra, who showed that population cycles might be described in terms of simple coupled nonlinear differential equations. It took decades for Lotka–Volterra-type models to become established, but the development of appropriate differential equations is now routine in modeling ecological dynamics. There is no question that the injection of mathematical equations, by forcing “clarity and precision into conjecture” (2), has led to increased understanding of population and community dynamics. As in science in general, in ecology equations are a key method of communication and of framing hypotheses. These equations serve as compact representations of an enormous amount of empirical data and can be analyzed by the powerful methods of mathematics.

Publication Year 2015
Title Equation-free modeling unravels the behavior of complex ecological systems
DOI 10.1073/pnas.1503154112
Authors Donald L. DeAngelis, Simeon Yurek
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PNAS
Index ID 70156234
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southeast Ecological Science Center