The Messel forest food web. (Image: Jennifer Dunne)

The classic ecological network is the food web, a staple of biology textbooks that pictorially describes which species eat which other species in an ecosystem. In recent years, ecological networks have evolved well beyond rudimentary cartoons to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the scientists engaged in network research. Current analyses explore topics ranging from plant-pollinator relationships to socio-ecological systems.

The growing community of scientists applying networks to environmental problems means the science is primed for a more significant role in decision-making. This November 5-7, a working group brings early-career scientists together at SFI to imagine a collective vision for the future of ecological networks. It’s the first of three meetings intended to build a community and facilitate collaboration.

“Networks are an excellent conceptual framework that can help us understand the structure and dynamics of biological communities,” explains Fernanda Valdovinos, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Complex Systems at the University of Michigan and co-organizer of the working group. “They can be considered a pure scientific discipline, and at the same time, an applied concept that can help predict the effects of catastrophic events or species invasions.”

Valdovinos is collaborating with Phillip Staniczenko, Research Fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and soon-to-be professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and SFI Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne to convene the working group.

“Several groups are tackling important questions with networks, and the time is right to get connected and accelerate innovation,”says Valdovinos.

The working group is also committed to improving feedback between researchers who collect data and perform experiments in the field and those who formulate theory and design analytical tools in the lab.

“By showing how theory can inform fieldwork and how fieldwork can inform theory, ecology can be a forerunner among disciplines using networks,” says Staniczenko. “We’re building the next-generation of ecological network tools and techniques because we hope they will help us answer big questions in science and solve important problems in society.”

Read more about the Next Generation Ecological Network Theory and Application working group.