Scientists are unravelling the reasons why mass extinctions have occurred throughout history

Leicester research could help to predict approaching ecological catastrophes

Leicester scientists have shed new light on why mass extinctions have occurred through history – and how this knowledge could help in predicting upcoming ecological catastrophes.

The international team has investigated sudden ecological transitions throughout history, from mass mortality events in the far past to more recent extinctions which have occurred over the last few decades.

In a paper published in the journal Science, co-authored by Professor Sergei Petrovskii and Dr Andrew Morozov from the University of Leicester’s Department of Mathematics, and a group of leading scientists from the USA and Canada, the team has explored the long-standing mystery of why these ecological transitions occur.

Ecological systems sometimes experience sudden changes in their properties or function which often results in species extinction and significant loss of biodiversity.

Understanding why these significant changes occur remains a challenge, in particular because transitions often happen under apparently steady, constant conditions and therefore cannot be directly linked to a specific environmental change.

Professor Petrovskii said: “Our research shows that a healthy ecosystem will not necessarily remain healthy, even in the absence of any significant environmental change. Therefore, better monitoring of the state of an ecosystem is required to mitigate potential disasters.

“We also can predict an approaching catastrophe in the sense that our study advises where to look for its signs and what is the relevant time scale: the environmental change (whether it is natural or man-made) that will finally lead to big changes might have happened a very long time ago."