Structural Ecology @ MIT

Understanding change in ecological communities

Our research program

Ecological communities are formed by the collection of co-occurring and interacting populations (be they plants, mammals, insects, bacteria, viruses, etc.) in a given place (be it a human host or natural habitat) and time (be it a short or large time scale). The composition of these communities is responsible for key ecosystem services, such as soil formation, water purification, CO2 sequestration, and human health, among others. Hence, understanding change in ecological communities has tremendous potential for bio-conservation, bio-technologies, and bio-medicine.

However, the dynamics of ecological communities are context-dependent (biotic and abiotic conditions), we do not know the exact equations governing their dynamics, and currently we do not have the capacity to infer all the exact conditions changing over time. This implies that we need to develop theoretical and experimental approaches to establish system-level and causative knowledge that can be used to understand the changing behavior of complex natural communities.

The Structural Ecology Group works towards developing generalizable and tractable formalisms (parametric and nonparametric) in order to explain and predict changes in the composition of experimental and natural communities. These formalisms are based on the notion of structural stability (the set of conditions compatible with a given behavior) in order to derive a system-level and probabilistic understanding of ecological dynamics under changing environmental conditions. The larger the set of conditions compatible with a given behavior, the higher the probability of observing such behavior. In other words, we study change via its counterfactual: lack of change. By studying what changes are possible and which ones are not, our work provides theoretical and empirical platforms to understand how, when, and why ecological communities change.