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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

High-integrity human intervention in ecosystems: Tracking self-organization modes

Zelnik, Yuval R.; Mau, Yair; Shachak, Moshe; Meron, Ehud


Human intervention in ecosystems is motivated by various functional needs, such as provisioning ecosystem services, but often has unexpected detrimental outcomes. A major question in ecology is how to manage human intervention so as to achieve its goal without impairing ecosystem function. The main idea pursued here is the need to identify the inherent response ways of ecosystems to disturbances, and use them as road maps for conducting interventions. This approach is demonstrated mathematically using two contexts, grazing management and vegetation restoration, and compared to remote sensing data for the latter. Among the surprising insights obtained is the beneficial effect of grazing, in terms of resilience to droughts, that can be achieved by managing it non-uniformly in space.

Humans play major roles in shaping and transforming the ecology of Earth. Unlike natural drivers of ecosystem change, which are erratic and unpredictable, human intervention in ecosystems generally involves planning and management, but often results in detrimental outcomes. Using model studies and aerial-image analysis, we argue that the design of a successful human intervention form calls for the identification of the self-organization modes that drive ecosystem change, and for studying their dynamics. We demonstrate this approach with two examples: grazing management in drought-prone ecosystems, and rehabilitation of degraded vegetation by water harvesting. We show that grazing can increase the resilience to droughts, rather than imposing an additional stress, if managed in a spatially non-uniform manner, and that fragmental restoration along contour bunds is more resilient than the common practice of continuous restoration in vegetation stripes. We conclude by discussing the need for additional studies of self-organization modes and their dynamics.

Published in

PLoS Computational Biology
2021, volume: 17, number: 9, article number: e1009427

Authors' information

The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Mau, Yair
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Shachak, Moshe
Ben Gurion University
Meron, Ehud
Ben Gurion University

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG15 Life on land

UKÄ Subject classification

Bioinformatics and Systems Biology

Publication Identifiers


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