A snapshot of computer-assisted ecology

Author: Dr. Paul Caplat

Most ecologists are fascinated by natural phenomena, and regard computers as mere tools to improve the power of analysis. And yes, that is what they are. But what an amazing tool they can be!

Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that it would be possible to simulate, on a personal, small-size laptop, the trajectory of millions of seeds dispersed by individual trees at a scale of a forest plot?

This is what CELC (Nathan et al. 2002, Wright et al. 2008) does, using high-resolution wind statistics and data on trees and seeds. On the picture below, you can see trees (in green) dispersing seeds that accumulate and create shades of grey (the clearer the grey, the denser the seeds are at one particular location). At this stage of the simulation, only three trees (at the top left corner) have dispersed their seeds.

Although I have been using this tool for more than six months, it still fascinates me. Because it is realistic, useful, and cool.

Nathan R., Katul G.G., Horn H.S., Thomas S.M., Oren R., Avissar R., Pacala S.W. & Levin S.A. (2002). Mechanisms of long-distance dispersal of seeds by wind. Nature, 418, 409-413.

Wright S.J., Trakhtenbrot A., Bohrer G., Detto M., Katul G.G., Horvitz N., Muller-Landau H.C., Jones F.A. & Nathan R. (2008). Understanding strategies for seed dispersal by wind under contrasting atmospheric conditions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 105, 19084-19089.


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