This paper presents the first mathematical model that attempts to represent the biology and behavior of all individual organisms globally, taking us a step closer to holistic ecological and conservation science founded on mechanistic predictions.
Anthropogenic activities are causing widespread degradation of ecosystems worldwide, threatening the ecosystem services upon which all human life depends. Improved understanding of this degradation is urgently needed to improve avoidance and mitigation measures. One tool to assist these efforts is predictive models of ecosystem structure and function that are mechanistic: based on fundamental ecological principles. Here we present the first mechanistic General Ecosystem Model (GEM) of ecosystem structure and function that is both global and applies in all terrestrial and marine environments. Functional forms and parameter values were derived from the theoretical and empirical literature where possible. Simulations of the fate of all organisms with body masses between 10 µg and 150,000 kg (a range of 14 orders of magnitude) across the globe led to emergent properties at individual (e.g., growth rate), community (e.g., biomass turnover rates), ecosystem (e.g., trophic pyramids), and macroecological scales (e.g., global patterns of trophic structure) that are in general agreement with current data and theory. These properties emerged from our encoding of the biology of, and interactions among, individual organisms without any direct constraints on the properties themselves. Our results indicate that ecologists have gathered sufficient information to begin to build realistic, global, and mechanistic models of ecosystems, capable of predicting a diverse range of ecosystem properties and their response to human pressures.
Ecosystems across the world are being rapidly degraded. This threatens their provision of natural goods and services, upon which all life depends. To be able to reduce—and one day reverse—this damage, we need to be able to predict the effects of human actions on ecosystems. Here, we present the first example of a General Ecosystem Model (GEM)—called the Madingley Model—a novel class of computational model that can be applied to any ecosystem, marine or terrestrial, and can be simulated at any spatial scale from local up to global. It covers almost all organisms in ecosystems, from the smallest to the largest, encoding the underlying biology and behaviour of individual organisms to capture the interactions between them and with the environment, to model the fate of each individual organism, and to make predictions about ecosystem structure and function. Predictions made by the Madingley Model broadly resemble what we observe in real-world ecosystems across scales from individuals through to communities, ecosystems, and the world as a whole. Our results show that ecologists can now begin modelling all nonhuman life on earth, and we suggest that this type of approach may hold promise for predicting the ecological implications of different future trajectories of human activity on our shared planet.