Using math to understand why species don’t out-eat each other

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This article is a little different from the fare you’re used to getting from me: it’s for SIAM News, which is the glossy magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

Competitive Adaptation Prevents Species from Eradicating Each Other

For SIAM News:

Evolution is frequently rough and unforgiving; individuals within a species compete for food, reproductive partners, or other resources. Species fight each other for survival, especially when preying on one another.

Mathematical biologists often simplify these dynamics to predator versus prey. Real-world populations of predator and prey species within a given ecosystem cycle between booms and busts. In various cases, multiple species—including both predators and prey—coexist with similar diets. For example, a cubic meter of seawater can harbor several species of plankton, consisting of tiny plants and animals (see Figure 1).

One would naively expect reproductive success (more offspring) or competitive performance (eating more than your neighbor) to lead to one species’ domination. But that does not occur. While many of these organisms consume the same food, one species does not out-eat the others; the plankton swarm’s overall diversity remains fairly constant. Biologists refer to this phenomenon as the “paradox of the plankton” or the “biodiversity paradox,” among similar terms.

[read the rest at SIAM News]

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City ant, country ant, and climate change

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Acorn ants as seen through a microscope. [Credit: moi]

I know, I know: it’s been a long time since I last had something published. This is largely because I took a little time off to finish my novel. With the first draft done, I needed to catch up. As a result, I have six or seven (depending on how you count) articles that are finished, but which won’t be published immediately. Anyway, here’s the first of those, published today:

What City Ants Can Teach Us About Species Evolution And Climate Change

Is the rapid evolution of a certain ant species to urban environments a preview of life on a warming planet? Some researchers are trying to find out.

For Undark Magazine:

Acorn ants are tiny. They’re not the ants you’d notice marching across your kitchen or swarming around sidewalk cracks, but the species is common across eastern North America. In particular, acorn ants live anywhere you find oak or hickory trees: both in forests and in the hearts of cities.

That’s why they’re so interesting to Sarah Diamond, a biology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “We’re comparing this little forest island within a city to traditional forest habitats,” she says. Specifically, she and her colleagues are looking at how well city ants can tolerate higher temperatures compared to their rural cousins. The experiment is made possible by what’s known as the urban heat island effect, which describes the tendency of the built-up infrastructure of cities — think heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt, for example — to create a hotter environment than less developed areas. [read the rest at Undark Magazine]

We aren’t the dinosaurs: we’re the asteroid

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The Sixth Extinction: We’re Not The Dinosaurs, We’re The Asteroid

Yes, humans are probably to blame for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, which is wiping out species at a rate 53 times greater than normal.

For The Daily Beast:

Extinction is an inevitable consequence of evolution. Environments change, new species arrive and crowd out the old, any number of factors make a formerly successful species unsuccessful. No less an authority than Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “Natural Selection almost inevitably causes much Extinction of the less improved forms of life and induces what I have called Divergence of Character.”

Even without the 19th-century capitalization for emphasis, extinction is a big deal. Earth has experienced at least five major mass extinction events, of which the end of the dinosaurs wasn’t even the largest. (The end of the dinos that hadn’t evolved into birds, of course.) Now the planet is experiencing the sixth mass extinction, and growing evidence points to the culprit. It’s not asteroids or volcanoes or methane this time.

It’s us. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]