Research NewsEcology

New Model Charts Swings in Crab Populations

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Science  30 May 1997:
Vol. 276, Issue 5317, pp. 1335
DOI: 10.1126/science.276.5317.1335

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Crab populations are notoriously erratic, skyrocketing one year and tumbling the next. For decades, ecologists have wondered what forces drive these swings: Is it biology--behaviors such as competition--which depends on the density of crabs in a given locale? Or is it environment--random changes in various aspects of the crabs' habitat? A new computer model, described on page 1431, suggests that the answer may well be both: Biological feedbacks can amplify even small changes in the crabs' physical environment, resulting in huge population swings. The work could help scientists better understand the population dynamics of a host of species, from pest insects such as gypsy moths to endangered butterflies.