Does the way an organism moves through an ecological community affect its survivability? The question is one that NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Daniel Ryan is trying to answer as a part of his research in the field of movement ecology, a discipline that considers all aspects of movement behavior in organisms. From sea turtles to salmon who return home after swimming thousands of miles away, from roaming elephants, migrating birds, spreading bacteria and dispersing seeds, the research attempts to answer the why, how, where and when organisms move.
Ryan uses mathematical models to investigate how movement affects the way species are distributed in time and space. "Broad types of movement strategies can account for factors such as predation risk, resource and prey availability, competitor density and fitness," Ryan explains. After analyzing the population dynamics, Ryan uses game theory to see which combinations of movement strategies and community structures produce the most stable communities and which can be most easily invaded by foreign organisms.
To aid in the numerical analysis, Ryan is also developing a stand alone, user-friendly simulation and visualization package to help solve common mathematical ecology equations.
"Hopefully, the results will help bring more understanding to the factors that influence what species can coexist with each other in an environment, and how much non-random dispersal is a factor," he said.
Ryan, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Miami, said being at an national institute like NIMBioS gives him opportunities to not only learn new skills but also network with experts in mathematical biology. "I am constantly being exposed to world-class researchers from a variety of different sub-disciplines in mathematics and biology. The result is that I get to make valuable contacts, hear about a variety of really interesting research, and in some cases, get involved with projects that I would not have thought to pursue on my own," Ryan said.
One of the first research groups that Ryan joined was the NIMBioS Working Group on 'Pretty Darn Good' Control: Extensions of Optimal Control for Ecological Systems, which investigates problems of uncertainty and control constraints in optimal control models. In joining the group, Ryan said, "I have added a whole new mathematical sub-discipline to my toolbox."
The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. NIMBioS is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.