To predict population booms, borrow from economics

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A new “landscape portfolio” theory uses insights from economics to predict animal population growth and the spread of disease.

The work melds Harry Markowitz’s “portfolio theory” in economics with ecological landscape theory to predict population growth of living things.

Population demography of plants, animals, and microbes that cause diseases is central to understanding many problems in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology.

Scientists have had limited information on collections of living populations to understand and predict what happens when you have many populations spread across vast geographic areas. Most research has focused only on local populations at small scales.

Coauthor Jessica Gurevitch, professor in the department of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, and colleagues discovered by using this landscape portfolio theory—verified with data on gypsy moth populations—something surprising occurs: When groups of populations are assessed over a large area, the total numbers of all of them together can grow even when none of the individual populations is growing. This is called “growth inflation”—a concept similar to diversified financial investing and total investment growth.

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When growth inflation happens with living populations, the risk of population volatility or plummeting population numbers becomes very small. Synchronicity among the populations was key to their discovery.

“This theory incorporates new developments based on the relationships among populations, which can potentially help scientists better predict geographically widespread growth of populations,” says Gurevitch. “The theory can also offer new insights to growth in fields as diverse as medicine and economics.”

The findings appear in PNAS. Coauthors of the paper are from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and the University of South Florida.

Source: Stony Brook University