Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Math discovery may aid resource management


With the aid of a chance discovery by a graduate student, scientists from Oregon State University have identified, dusted off and found a new use for an old math theory from the early 1800s that could revolutionize the management of lands, protection of species and study of ecology.

The discovery promises for the first time to address the enormous complexities of the natural world with the powerful tools of advanced mathematics – which, until now, have been of limited use in the study of many natural resource issues. Existing mathematical approaches have often been relegated to the sidelines, in favor of time-consuming and costly experiments or trial-and-error management.

The findings are being published in the journal American Naturalist and are co-authored by Jeffrey Dambacher, Hans Luh, Hiram Li and Philippe Rossignol.

“This research should have major implications for the management of natural resources around the world,” said Philippe Rossignol, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “We’re going to be able to apply mathematics to predict what might happen with a great deal more certainty than ever before. It could significantly improve the ability of ecologists, land managers and other scientists to address many issues, anything from the clarity of Crater Lake to fisheries management or emerging diseases.”

OSU researchers are already using the new approaches and formulas described in this research to tackle problems from invasive species in Yaquina Bay to the ecological impact of bullfrogs and the stability of an Oregon sea urchin fishery. But the concepts are so useful and so broad, the scientists say, that these projects are barely scratching the surface of this technology’s potential.

This new insight in ecological science began when OSU researchers were struggling to resolve a mathematical paradox first suggested in 1973 by a famous ecologist named Robert May, who produced a mathematical theory that made perfect sense but seemed at odds with the way the world really worked.

“One of the basic concepts of ecology for generations had been that the complexity of the natural world is a big part of what makes it persistent, that the many interrelationships, interactions and food webs among different species evolved into stable systems that worked well together,” said Hiram Li, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife.

“But Robert May came along with a mathematical theory that suggested that increased complexity in a natural system should actually make it less stable,” Li said. “The math seemed to work perfectly, but our observations of the real world ran contrary to this.”

For 30 years researchers have debated this paradox between the way the world appeared to work – a “tangled web” of thriving organisms, as Charles Darwin described it – with May’s mathematical description of the way it should work. Since the mathematical theory had not been reconciled with real-world observations, many field ecologists dismissed its importance. Applied mathematics are being used to manage fishing, hunting and control of pests, Li said, in situations that only relate to one or two species – but they have not been applied to ecosystems or communities.

“What we came to realize, however, is that May’s mathematical analysis was not really wrong, it just didn’t go far enough, as even May conceded,” Rossignol said. “So what we’ve tried to do is shine some light into this black box, by identifying more degrees of stability and using more variables, allowing the math to consider complexity and eventually arrive at different conclusions.”

The researchers were struggling with their approach when Jeffrey Dambacher, then an OSU graduate student, had a chance conversation about what was needed with some faculty in OSU’s Department of Mathematics. They mentioned a largely forgotten theorem of matrix algebra developed in the early 1800s by the French mathematician Augustin Cauchy. The theory, so far as they knew, had never yet found any useful application. But it appeared to be ideal for the problem at hand.

“It became immediately clear that this mathematical approach would take us in the direction we needed,” Rossignol said. “It gives us a way to describe complex natural populations in more realistic terms, consider indirect interactions and really provide a much more accurate view of how natural systems will work. We’ll be far more accurate with our predictions and can use this approach in the new field of adaptive management, improving our natural resource management approaches as we go.”

The OSU scientists have fine-tuned this approach in continued research and outlined it in their new publication for other scientists to use in a comparatively simple, well-defined system.

“We’re now bridging the world of biology and mathematics in a way that will let people approach complex problems using descriptive, qualitative information,” Li said. “It complements data-hungry mathematical models by identifying key interactions to focus on when gathering quantitative data from a complex system. This reduces the need for complex, expensive and time-consuming experiments.

“With this approach, I can now do a computation in minutes that used to take forever. I’d literally write equations by hand on 20 feet of rolled-out butcher paper and hope I didn’t make a mistake along the way.” The technique is also reliable, Li said. Using only text descriptions, these qualitative models have duplicated the predictions of studies done with classical ecological experiments.

In one recent usage, an OSU graduate student used this system to study the stability of an Oregon sea urchin fishery and answer questions about the long-term value of reserves. This would have been almost impossible with real-world experiments, but after the computer ran through 12 million mathematical combinations of possible outcomes, the scientists had the answers they had sought.

This research was supported by grants from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

By David Stauth, 541-737-0787
SOURCES: Philippe Rossignol, 541-737-5509; Hiram Li, 541-737-4531

Phillippe Rossignol | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Interdisciplinary Research:

nachricht Lego-like wall produces acoustic holograms
17.10.2016 | Duke University

nachricht New evidence on terrestrial and oceanic responses to climate change over last millennium
11.10.2016 | University of Granada

All articles from Interdisciplinary Research >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Greater Range and Longer Lifetime

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VDI presents International Bionic Award of the Schauenburg Foundation

26.10.2016 | Awards Funding

3-D-printed magnets

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>