The use of computer simulations or mathematical equations to address questions that cannot be answered solely by experiments or observations. Ecological models have two major aims: to provide general insight into how ecological systems or ecological interactions work; and to provide specific predictions about the likely futures of particular populations, communities, or ecosystems.
Models can be used to indicate general possibilities or to forecast the most likely outcomes of particular populations or ecosystems. Models differ in whether they are “basic” or are intended to address management decisions. As ecology has grown in its sophistication, models are increasingly used as decision support tools for policy-makers. Models of virtually every possible type of ecological interaction have been developed (competition, parasitism, disease, mutualism, plant-herbivore interactions, and so forth). The models vary in their level of detail. Some models simply keep track of the density of organisms, treating all organisms of any species as identical (mass action models). At the other extreme, the movement and fate of each individual organism may be tracked in an elaborate computer simulation (individual behavior models). See Population ecology
Simple algebraic models are very useful for indicating general principles and possibilities. In order to be a management tool, the model must be more complicated and detailed to reflect the specific situation under examination. For example, instead of a few equations, ecologists have modeled spotted owl populations and old growth forests in Washington using a detailed computer simulation that keeps track of habitat in real maps at the scale of hectares. In these simulation models, owls are moved as individuals from one hectare to another, and their fate (survival, death, or reproduction) is recorded in the computer's memory. By tracking hundreds or even thousands of owls moving around in this computer world, different forestry practices corresponding to different logging scenarios can be examined. See Systems ecology
A model is a formal way of examining the consequences of a series of assumptions about how nature works. Such models refine thinking and clarify what results are implied by any set of assumptions. As models become more complicated and specific, they can also be used to conduct experiments that are too expensive or impractical in the field.
One danger of ecological modeling is the uncertainty of the models and the shortage of supporting data. Properly used, models allow exploration of a wide range of uncertainty, pointing out the limits of current knowledge and identifying critical information required prior to management decision making. However, it would not be prudent to rely solely on the output of any model. See Ecology