Today’s Solutions: January 29, 2023

As climate change, deforestation, pollution, and other human activities threaten our natural world, scientists often turn to mathematical models to see what actions need to be taken to ensure that ecosystems are kept in balance. Now, anyone can try their hand at keeping an ecosystem in balance through a new smartphone game, while also helping researchers find real-world answers to ecological problems.

Developed by students at Imperial College London, EcoBuilder allows players to build their own ecosystems of plants and animals, adding species of different sizes and deciding who eats who. Based on those decisions, the species will either survive or go extinct.

The idea was inspired by a BBC documentary about the wolves in Yellowstone, which were declared extinct there in 1926. Without wolves, the ecosystem drastically changed. The number of elk skyrocketed, and so did the amount of vegetation that the elk ate. Consequently, less vegetation impacted smaller animals like the beaver, and in a chain reaction, even the fish populations struggled.

To bring the ecosystem back into balance, ecologists reintroduced wolves into the park, which decreased the elk population, allowing the plants that the elk ate to grow. This in turn allowed beavers to build dams again, which brought back fish. Elk populations eventually rebounded to a healthy number, and the predatory threat of wolves now keeps the elk moving around the park instead of overgrazing one area.

Though EcoBuilder doesn’t depict real animals, the idea is the same: players add in predators in order to keep every species alive.

The game uses similar mathematical models that scientists use to map out real ecosystems. With every level a player completes, the best ecosystem they made and the actions they took to get there are stored on a server to be shared with researchers. Given that the strategies created by the players are based on real ecosystem models, there’s actually a chance that they may one day inform real environmental policies.

Once there are enough players to make statistically significant observations, the developers say they’ll publish the results from the game, and if you get a high score, your name might even appear in that paper.

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