Looking back through time, the fossil record shows a remarkable diversity of forms, creatures unfamiliar to today’s Earth, suggesting ecosystems alien enough to challenge any sense of continuity. But reconstructed trophic networks — maps of who’s eating whom — reveal a hidden order that has been conserved since the first complex animals of half a billion years ago. These network models offer scientists an armature on which to hang new unifying theories of ecology, a way to answer questions about how energy moves through living systems, how evolution keeps producing creatures to refill specific niches, how mass extinctions happen, what minimal viable ecosystems are and why. Untangling this deep structure of food webs may also shed light on technology and economics, and guide interventions to ensure sustainability in agriculture, conservation efforts, even venture capital investment.
This week’s guest is Jennifer Dunne, SFI’s Vice President for Science and Fellow at the Ecological Society of America. Dunne got her PhD in Energy and Resources from UC Berkeley, joined SFI’s faculty in 2007, and sits on the advisory board for Nautilus Magazine. In this second half of a two-part conversation, we discuss her work on reconstructing ancient food webs, and the implications of this research for our understanding of ecologies, extinctions, sustainability, and technological innovation.
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Jennifer Dunne’s Website.
Quanta Magazine features Dunne on humans in food webs.
Jennifer on This Week in Science at InterPlanetary Festival 2019.
Learn more about The ArchaeoEcology Project.
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