Tag Archives: statistical ecology

Forecasting the Fate of an Ecosystem: The Double-Edged Sword of Predictive Modelling

Image Credit: Amy-Jo, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Let’s get the humblebragging out of the way – this week a paper that I wrote was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It was a paper that I genuinely enjoyed writing, and it gives a tangible outcome – the forecasting of the establishment of invasive species within a region. The applications are obvious. Knowing where an invasive species is likely to pop up lets us detect it early and take action quickly.

Yet that very tangibility of the outcome has resulted in it being the paper of which I most fear the consequences. So in an exorcism of my general nerves (and as a soft disclaimer), I wanted to talk about why forecasting or predicting anything can be such a complicated undertaking for an ecologist.

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Ecological Modelling, the Coronavirus, and Why They’re Not A Perfect Match

Image Credit: Pharexia, Ratherous, AKS471883, Source Data from  Johns Hopkins University CSSEThe Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNew York TimesCNBC.

As it quickly became clear in late February and early March that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon, attention turned to trying to figure out when and where the virus would spread. Epidemiologists and virologists have had their work cut out for them, trying to simultaneously reassure and warn people the world over about the dangers, the nature and the potential timeline of the virus.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to see ecologists try and tip their hat into the ring. Early on in the pandemic, teams of ecologists sprang up, trying to use Species Distribution Models to predict the spread of the virus. And whilst this might sound helpful, many of these studies lacked collaboration with epidemiologists, and their predictions very quickly fell flat. Some studies suggested that areas like Brazil and Central Africa would be largely spared by the virus, which quickly turned out not to be the case. Flaws in the studies were spotted quite quickly by concerned members of both the ecological and epidemiological communities alike, and a few teams got started on responses.

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