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Warwick research solves ecosystem secret

Researchers from the University of Warwick have identified a mathematical paradigm, Trophic Coherence, key to the organisation and survival of the world’s ecosystems.

Trophic Coherence is a measure of how plant and animal life interact within the food web of each ecosystem, thus providing scientists with the first ever mathematical understanding of their architecture.

Through the mathematical paradigm, scientists will learn how food webs are able to grow in size while becoming more stable. The Trophic Coherence was found to be a universal, mathematical property found in each and every ecosystem.

Researchers from the University have argued that such a paradigm demonstrates that ecosystems are less random and more structured than previously thought.

The Warwick research will help contribute to the solving of one of nature’s greatest mysteries – how ecosystems survive.

Dr Samuel Johnson, from Warwick’s Mathematics Institute, explains:

“Buildings require structural supports, such as the metal or timber frames around which they are then built. The same is true of natural ecosystems; they need support and structure. Trophic Coherence seems to play a similar role in ecosystems as supporting frames of buildings.

“It is a structural property that helps ecosystems survive, and is common to all the ones we have analysed. It provides them with essential support and structure.”

Dr Johnson added: “Observed in nature these interactions, which comprise an ecosystem’s food web, can look totally random, but if they were truly so then they would collapse. In reality, beneath this random façade lays a fundamental mathematical property that helps the ecosystem to survive – this is Trophic Coherence.”

In addition to this, the researchers argue that Trophic Coherence could lend a hand to important conservation efforts in identifying whether a given ecosystem is likely to become more or less stable if certain species are lost.

The results may also find potential application in fields such as finance and engineering, where understanding the relation between size and stability in interconnected systems is often paramount.

The research, titled Trophic coherence determines food-web stability, is published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


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