Scientists rank importance of species with Google algorithim

If key species in an ecosysyem goes extict the whole system can collapse. Ecologists have created a model for predicting such a collapse by ranking how important a species is using Googles search algorithim PageRank.

This is a new network-based approach to species extinction modelling and could be very useful for conservationists trying to prevent an eco-disaster.

“If we can find the way of removing species so that the destruction of the ecosystem is the fastest, it means we’re ranking species by their importance,” said ecologist Stefano Allesina of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the paper published Friday in PLoS Computational Biology.

[…]

“When the researchers tested the Google algorithm against existing models for predicting ecosystem collapse, they found that the new solution outperformed the old ones in each of the 12 food webs they looked at.

“In every case that we tested, the algorithm returned either the best possible solution, out of the billions of possibilities, or very close to it,” Allesina said. In this case, the “best possible solution” is the one that predicts total ecosystem collapse using the fewest number of species extinctions. [Wired]

With PageRank, a website is important if important websites link to it. The researchers applied this idea to ecosystems: if lots of species eat you, you’re important. If lots of important species eat you, you’re even more important.

I’m sure that is a great comfort to the gazelle currently serving as dinner to a bunch of lions somewhere on the African savannah.

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