Like complexity science, network science deals with connected systems. Computer scientists use it to model connections between users on the Internet; economists use it to represent transactions between households and firms; and since the 1970’s ecologists have used network techniques to map the interactions among organisms in the very web of life.
One of the leading figures in applying network techniques to ecology is SFI’s Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne. She has been elected a Fellow of the Network Science Society (NetSci) for her “pioneering work elucidating the network structure of ecology, particularly food webs, highlighting the interplay of dynamics and structure of networks.” Her award was presented during an online ceremony Sept. 24, as part of the virtual NetSci 2020 conference.
“We can’t think about species in isolation from each other,” says Dunne. “Network research gives us the tools to quantify, analyze, and model complex interactions, and to understand how ecological webs can unravel in response to species loss, climate change, and other disturbances.”
Dunne’s research into trophic interactions in food webs— which she describes as networks of “who eats whom”— has revealed common features of ecological organization from half-billion-year-old Cambrian systems (Dunne, Erwin et al, PLOS Biology 2008) to the present. As well as being one of the first to study ancient food webs based on fossil assemblages, Dunne also pioneered the analysis of humans in complex food webs. In 2016, Dunne and her team published the most highly resolved, comprehensive food web ever compiled for a nearshore marine ecosystem, and it also explicitly included human hunter-gatherers. The analyses showed how the Sanak Island Aleut of the Pacific Northwest entered that system thousands of years ago and thrived without destabilizing other species, even though they fed on a quarter of the marine species available to them.
In recent years, Dunne has expanded her research to map the myriad types of interactions between humans and the species around them, beyond just feeding. With the ArchaeoEcology project, Dunne and her collaborators are compiling comprehensive data from multiple pre-industrial cultures to figure out how humans fit into, impacted, and benefited from complex ecological networks, work that they hope will provide insights for current and future sustainability.
“This is a well-deserved honor,” says SFI President David Krakauer. "Jen is a world leader in network ecology and brings to very complex problems a unique combination of empirical and philosophical depth. So this award recognizes Jen’s synthetic style of thought and the whole ethos of the SFI community that her work represents."