Probability, statistics and wildlife conservation

Discover how the maths you learn today could be applied to a career in wildlife conservation tomorrow.

When you think about conservation and nature, the first thing that springs to mind might not be maths. However, you may be surprised to discover that applied maths is a foundational discipline that underpins all our conservation efforts, both here and overseas. In fact, mathematical modelling developed right here in Australia is used by environmental scientists and urban planners all over the world to understand everything from Californian marine environments to systems in the Amazon rainforest and planning cities and urban development in South Africa.

Hugh Possingham is Queensland’s Chief Scientist and one of the mathematicians behind this kind of modelling, called ‘Marxan spatial planning’.

‘Models are essential for decision-making,’ Hugh explains, ‘because models are predictions of the future.

‘In some sense, every person making a decision is a modeller. You are all modellers, because you cannot take any action in life without predicting its consequences.’


Real-world impact

As a kid, Hugh thought maths was just an amusement. ‘Until second year university I just thought maths was something you did because it was fun and a vaguely entertaining game, no different from chess,’ he says. ‘Chess has no purpose, other than to win. So, for me, maths was a puzzle and you played it to get good marks.’

It wasn’t until Hugh realised how much maths could be used to describe the world around us that he understood he could apply that puzzle-solving to make a real-world impact. In Hugh’s case, that impact was in the area of wildlife conservation.

In conservation, we first need to measure animal or plant populations – unless you know how much or how many of a thing exist, you can’t work out how many need to exist to save the species.

Counting – and saving – species

Next, we want to know what the future holds for those populations. Mathematical statistics in the form of modelling are used to look at the conditions surrounding those populations to try to predict what will happen to them over time.

You can change the mathematical models to factor in different interventions or human actions to see if that would be helpful or harmful to a population.

  • What happens if we maintain the current tree levels in a forest?
  • Is there enough there to support the long-term health of an existing koala population?
  • What happens if we cut more trees down? What happens if we plant more?
  • Do those things help?

Modelling is used in efforts to save endangered species, restore and manage fish stocks for sustainable fishing, and plan suburbs, hospitals, primary schools and different kinds of public transport.

Whether you’re passionate about elephants, birds or lizards, coral reefs or wetlands, or designing better human cities, applied mathematics will be an important part of that future.