Study: Human meddling may halt extinctions

Jan. 25, 2011 at 6:23 PM
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EVANSTON, Ill., Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Human intervention in imperiled ecosystems could prevent species extinctions that often ripple through disturbed or damaged environments, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists at Northwestern University say an analysis of how disturbances propagate through a network of organisms reveals that when an ecosystem is already at risk, proactively removing particular species can halt the cascade of extinctions that sometimes follow, reported Tuesday.

That approach, described in the journal Nature Communications, could help well-defined areas such as islands deal with the effects of invasive species, researchers say.

"At the end of the day, methods based on inflicting locally controlled damage -- despite being damaging -- can have a positive effect on the entire network," study co-author Adilson Motter said.

By modeling which species eat which and how that leads to changes in population levels over time, the researchers say they can identify particular species whose removal or suppression would contain damage.

Actions such as birth control for deer that are overrunning an area, or encouraging fishing to bring down a certain species' numbers, may prevent the loss of multiple other species, the study suggests.

The study isn't advocating large-scale removal of any species, the researchers say, but for contained spaces such as islands, lakes or parks that often grapple with invasive species or otherwise out-of-balance distributions of animals, the approach may be useful.

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