Feb 21, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

The Quandaries of a Modern Ecologist—How Ecological ‘Flash Mobs’ Are More Like Magnets Than You Might Think

Apr 08, 2015 05:10 PM EDT

When it comes to ecological modeling, often the devil is in the details. But with so many complex theories at play, and so many realistic, natural variants it becomes an almost impossible task to decipher exactly it is that the researchers are trying to show us. This time the researchers made it easy for us.

Equating an ecological question of synchronicity, that has perplexed population ecologists for decades, to an ecological equivalent of a "flash mob", researchers with the University of California, Davis are revealing just how it is that when one bad apple falls they all tend to fall. And with their model the researchers reveal an even more complex truth-it's a lot more like magnetic mathematical models than you might have ever expected. 

In the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications, co-authors of the study Alan Hastings and Andrew Noble reveal that a well known concept in physics known as the "Ising Model" can accurately predict a myriad of events related to ecological synchrony, from the outbreak of disease to why some years fruit trees bloom better than others.

"Our paper forges an unexpectedly strong connection between physics and population biology" Noble says. "It's the discovery of a common framework for understanding seemingly unrelated scientific questions."

According to the study, funded by the National science Foundation's INSPIRE program, the Ising model can accurately predict several of the ecological flash mobs that the researchers investigated, and they think many more.

Take for example the example of fruit trees. Ever wonder exactly why it is that some years a tree or an orchard may bear massive fruits, while others the trees may stay barren? Looking at each fruit as a "magnetic force" within the model, the researchers can tell you why.

"All the fruit trees have their big year on the same year because of the same model that has to do with getting little magnets lined up at once to create a big-scale magnet" Hastings says. "Improving our understanding of models that describe how things go into synchrony over long distances is very important for understanding population dynamics."

And the implications of the study and of this model may extend far more than just predicting a good crop year. Researchers believe that through the model they may also be able to track synchrony of ecological events such as extinction and disease, giving us a better idea of when a cataclysmic event may occur in the future.

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