Statistical mechanics is the branch of physics that explains how macroscopic properties of matter emerge from the behavior of its microscopic constituents. Population ecology studies how and why populations change over time and space, primarily due to the interaction among individuals and between individuals and the environment where they thrive. Although seemingly very different, both disciplines aim to explain large-scale phenomena based on a description of their underlying drivers, and statistical mechanics tools have been largely used to formalize population ecology. For over 100 years, however, mathematical models in population ecology have relied on very strong and unrealistic assumptions about the way individuals move and get to interact with each other and with the environment. Specifically, they assume that individuals behave like the molecules of an ideal gas: following completely random trajectories through the entire area occupied by the population and only interacting with each other when their trajectories intersect.
In this presentation, I will first discuss why mathematical models are powerful tools to understand ecological processes. Then, I will show how traditional models of population dynamics emerge from ideal gas assumptions for individual movement and briefly touch on our recent efforts to refine those models combining more elaborated tools from statistical physics, random walk theory, and GPS tracking data of natural populations.
- Scientific Series