Why I Have a Coral Reef Living in My Computer…Posted by marlenebrito on Jul 14, 2011 in Featured • No comments
By Marlene Brito
From the moment I first experienced coral reefs in the Snake cayes of Belize, I was captivated by a wealth of ecological interactions. As a community ecologist, I am fascinated by the dynamical nature of these inherently complex systems. In the benthic environment alone, there exists a myriad of fascinating interactions including competition, predation, symbioses, and parasitism (to name a few). All of these interactions are but a glimpse of the whole complex coral reef system that, when healthy and resilient, is characterized by prolific reef-building, a striking level of biodiversity and a capacity for self-renewal.
Because calcifying organisms, such as stony corals and calcifying algae are the foundation species of tropical reefs, it is pivotal to gage benthic community structure. Given that space is one of the most precious resources for benthic organisms, I find the important questions to be: how does spatial distribution (aggregated vs random) influence community dynamics and consequent community structure? How do dynamical interactions, both demographic and ecological, generate emergent benthic distributions and patterns at the local reef scale, say over 1-5 km? And how do humans impact these patterns?
All of these ecological questions are fine and dandy but how do I begin to investigate them? The answer is through MODELING (hence the reason I have a coral reef living in my computer!)…
Ecological modeling is a practical tool that facilitates investigations of complex systems like coral reefs because it allows the simultaneous exploration of a suite of interactions and how they change in a simulated reef system. Up until now, I’ve been happily playing with a simulation model that explores the evolution of benthic composition through time on a grid-based lattice (50m X 50m). Because I’m interested in how spatial pattern influences benthic dynamics and structure, I hope to soon be able to play around with models that vary in their degree of spatiality (e.g. implicit vs. explicit). I can’t wait to eventually put these models to the test by validating them with real temporal benthic data from both the Caribbean and the Pacific. And of course I can’t forget to mention the thrill of using the models to guide me into precious experiments in the field ;0)….
Photo by Jen Smith