1 math model sums up all predators and prey

Food webs are incredibly complex networks of interactions between organisms and the things they eat. One creature’s prey is another creature’s predator. Some organisms consume one type of food as juveniles and another as adults.

Thousands of modeling studies have been developed to describe different consumer-resource relationships in the natural world, but a new general consumer-resource model captures the underlying structure of all ecological food webs and provides a framework from which new models that share the same assumptions and mathematics can emerge.

cythmoid isopod chews on the tongue of its mullet host
This cythmoid isopod chews on the tongue of its mullet host. (Credit: Kevin Lafferty)

“It rolls a century’s worth of food-web mathematics into a single model,” says Kevin Lafferty, a US Geological Survey/UCSB ecologist and lead and author of a new study published in Science.

Unified theory of ecology

Researchers formulated a mathematical model that outlines behaviors, circumstances, and effects of the various strategies employed by consumers, from social predators such as the enormous killer whale to tiny parasites and pathogens.

“There’s a long history in ecology of striving for generality through the use of simple models, because models can help identify the key dynamical features common to many ecological systems,” says coauthor Cheryl Briggs, professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology.

The effects of this general consumer-resource model are far-reaching: resource management, conservation efforts, public health, urban planning, and agriculture are but a few of the fields that could benefit from this wide-reaching concept.

“This is a key step to a unifying theory of ecology,” says coauthor Armand Kuris, zoologist and professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology. “By removing the hidden assumptions of earlier work, we can now model all complex life cycles for all feeding strategies. These new models can more effectively tackle urgent problems such as climate change.”

Researchers from Stanford University, Princeton University, Santa Fe Institute, and the University of Bristol are coauthors of the study.

Source: UC Santa Barbara