Saving an Ecosystem by selecting against it

Model removes species from ecosystem, avoiding dismal fate of mass extinction

Human interference with delicate ecosystems can have significant, long-term effects. The introduction of rats to Hawaii, for example, has decimated many of the island's bird species. Human damage to the structure of ecological systems, moreover, has led to the extinction of native species. By some estimates the current extinction rate is at 100 to 1,000 times the historical average.

The news is grim. But could there be a way for human involvement to actually reverse these effects and slow species loss?

The answer is yes, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications.

The study describes an algorithm which takes species interactions into account in determining which ones should be targeted for human interference. The study, led by Adilson Motter, associate physics and astronomy professor at Northwestern University, reports the extinction of a species may be avoided through the removal or population suppression of another specific species.

"Our approach is based on bringing the system to these more favorable states, which the system would not reach spontaneously," Motter said. Small and closed systems including islands, lakes and parks benefit the most from this involvement, according to the press release accompanying the study.

It seems straightforward - simply remove invasive species, and the native species should thrive. But often the problem can be more complex.

Feral pigs were introduced to the Channel Islands in California, for example, after which the native fox population began to decline.

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