A tendency to simplify complex systems


Montgomery RA, Moll RJ, Say-Sallaz E, Valeix M, Prugh LR. A tendency to simplify complex systems. Biological Conservation [Internet]. 2019;233 :1–11.


Predation is a fundamental force exerting strong selective pressure on prey populations. Predators not only kill prey, triggering lethal effects, but also hunt prey which can induce risk effects. Foundational research has documented the importance of risk effects in predator-prey systems of arthropods, fish, birds, and rodents, among others. Risk effects research in carnivore-ungulate systems has expanded in the last 20 years. Presently, the degree to which this research mirrors the complexity of carnivore-ungulate trophic systems has been questioned. We synthesized this literature to quantify the tendency of risk effects research in carnivore-ungulate systems to be multispecies in design. Among the 170 studies that we reviewed, we found that on average just 1.26 (range = 1 to 5) carnivore species and 1.60 (range = 1 to 11) ungulate species were considered per study. Furthermore, 63% (n = 107 of 170) of the studies featured single predator - single prey research designs. These results contrast with the fact that all but one of the 82 carnivore-ungulate systems used this literature had multiple species of carnivores and/or ungulates. Thus, we detected a tendency to simplify complex systems. We relate these observations to the role of simplicity as: i) an underlying value of science (i.e., Occam's razor), ii) a cornerstone of predator-prey theory (e.g., Lotka-Volterra equations), and iii) part of the origins of risk effects research (i.e., experimental systems). Finally, we ground our discussion in the implications of this research for the conservation of carnivores and ungulates in the dynamic 21st century.

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Last updated on 09/29/2023