Scallop fishing in Peru

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The department of Theoretical Ecology & Modelling studies ecological and social-ecological systems using theoretical methods such as conceptual models, mathematical models, computational simulations, and advanced data analysis. 

As complex entities, social-ecological systems are composed of many interacting parts creating the property of great functional constancy over time at the ecosystem scale, while at the smaller scale of populations and individual organisms the intrinsic natural variability of processes may be large. Human activities alter the natural variability of fundamental processes such as the spatial structure of land- and seascapes, the trophic control mechanisms in food webs and biogeochemical cycles, thus causing drastic changes in system functioning. 

As a way of dealing with the complexity of these social-ecological systems, we adopt an integrative approach by using and developing models for systems at different levels of organisation (from cells to ecosystems) and for different spatial and temporal scales. Energy and nutrient inputs, disturbances and species interactions create complex spatial patterns of the distribution of organisms. The identification of such spatial patterns and their relationships to ecological processes and to changing environmental conditions are also part of our research activities. We are interested in understanding complex interactions and control mechanisms among species of different trophic levels with a focus on strategies leading to a sustainable management of resources. 

We use a diverse set of modelling techniques, including individual-based modelling, cellular automata modelling and biogeochemical modelling. We develop also models of evolutionary trait dynamics and kinetic models of nutrient uptake and cell physiology; we adopt complex adaptive system approaches and ecosystem trophic mass balance analyses. Our modelling tools allow us to use time series to model system changes over time as driven by anthropogenic and/or environmental factors and to simulate future use and perturbation scenarios of tropical aquatic systems. 

As integrative tools, these models not only allow synthesising a great variety of data, knowledge and approaches from different research disciplines, they are also relevant instruments for decision support and thus directly contribute to the mission of ZMT.