The Complexity of Ecosystem Interactions
"The paramount challenge to ecology in the foreseeable
future is the cracking apart and resynthesis of the assemblages of organisms that occupy ecosystems, particularly
the most complex ecosystems such as estuaries and rainforests. Most studies in ecology focus on only one or two
species of organisms at a time, out of the thousands occupying a typical habitat. The researchers, forced into
reductionism by practical necessity, start with small fragments of the whole ecosystem. Yet they are aware that
the fate of each species is determined by the diverse actions of scores or hundreds of other species that variously
photosynthesize, browse, graze, decompose, hunt, fall prey, and turn soil around the target species . . . The greatest
challenge today, not just in cell biology and ecology but in all of science, is the accurate and complete description
of complex systems . . . Physicists, whose subject is the simplest in science, have already succeeded in part .
. . [but] at higher, more specific levels of organization, beyond the traditional realm of physics, the difficulties
of synthesis are almost inconceivably more difficult."
E.O. Wilson (1998)
Ecologists work with incredibly complex systems. In the past they focused on the role of individual species, while
today there is a greater emphasis on linking biodiversity and ecosystem function. Ecologists attempt to make this
linkage by defining membership in "functional groups," or groupings of organisms by physiological, morphological,
and phenological attributes. However, defining membership in a specific function group is exceedingly difficult
due to the complexity of interactions between species. Ecologists have attempted to apply mathematical theories
such as chaos and fuzzy set logic in an effort to describe the ill-defined membership of functional groups and
develop an understanding of the complexity of an ecosystem. One eventual goal from this work is to be able to predict
the effect on the ecosystem of the loss of a species.