This if from a National Geographic article.

“Say we cure these rodents of Lassa virus and that's good, that's great for humanity. Except what if that virus was controlling their population size or something? And then we get a wild expansion of the reservoir rodents,” Nuismer says. “I see this as a much more credible place where we could go wrong … because we could tip the ecology off in a way that would be really unfortunate,” he says.

I wonder what 'tip the ecology off' means in the above context.

My sense is that it means 'endanger the ecology'.

Am I right?

4 Answers 4


In this context, "tip the ecology off" means as you said, "endanger the ecology". However, it is more like "endanger the balance of nature". I'd interpret this sentence as "because we could accidentally mess up the balance of nature, causing something bad to happen".

  • Thank you very much.
    – user151836
    Mar 23, 2022 at 1:52
  • 18
    "Tip off" sounds incorrect here. "Tip" and "Tip ... off balance" both work, but "tip ... off" means to notify someone, which doesn't make sense here.
    – Flater
    Mar 23, 2022 at 13:16
  • Thank you very much.
    – user151836
    Mar 23, 2022 at 22:05

Your sense is basically correct. This exact phrase is not too common, indeed Google Ngrams finds zero instances. I suspect it is short for

tip the ecology off balance

as the idea of the balance of nature is a common one.

It sounds a bit odd perhaps because "tip off" is more often used in the sense of inform.

  • Thank you very much.
    – user151836
    Mar 23, 2022 at 3:06
  • I think the word "balance" is essential to the meaning of "to tip something off balance." The sentence as written literally means "to pass information to the ecology." I suspect the speaker simply made a mistake (as often happens when speaking without a script) and the editor of the article either did not notice the mistake or chose not to correct it. It is possible that the speaker had something even more dramatic in mind ("tip the ecology off a cliff"), but we may never know.
    – David K
    Mar 24, 2022 at 5:09
  • @David K Perhaps, but the common expression "the tipping point" does not include the word "balance" but is, I think drived from "tip the balance". Perhaps the speaker meant to include the word "balance" but got confused -- it happens. But I think the general sense is still that of "tip nature off balance" Mar 24, 2022 at 5:47
  • I agree the general direction of the intended meaning is clear enough, and it is quite possible that (as you suggest) the speaker got two similar expressions confused and therefore failed to use either one correctly. Mistakes happen. But mistakes by (presumably) native speakers make life harder for a person trying to learn English.
    – David K
    Mar 24, 2022 at 5:52

I suspect to tip off is a slightly garbled phrase, combining two expressions:

  • tipping point, referring to a situation where the ecology is modified in an unexpectedly dramatic way
  • off, meaning "abnormal" (like when a situation "feels off")

So they were probably trying to convey the sense of suddenly pushing the ecology into an abnormal state.

EDIT It might also be influenced by the phrase to throw off, meaning to upset a balance or destabilise.

  • 1
    That’s my guess, too.
    – Davislor
    Mar 23, 2022 at 16:39
  • Thank you very much.
    – user151836
    Mar 23, 2022 at 22:03
  • 1
    This is the only answer which refers to a dramatic change, which is an important part of how I would read the sentence in the Question. It's a small change leading to a dramatic effect.
    – Jontia
    Mar 24, 2022 at 9:40

Both "tip" and "balance" are used in the example.

The reference is to tipping a physical object that perhaps is balanced. And implies that tipping causes the object to fall or crash.

The sentence implies that ecology can be thought of as a physical object that is "in balance" but certain actions may "tip off" ecology in such a manner that it could crash as would a physical object.

It is not unusual in English to take verbs that apply to the physical world and apply them to non-physical concepts. When I took calculus and above in college, I noticed that my professors often used the term "grasp" with a meaning of "to understand" as if the abstract math concept could be thought of as a physical object and literally grasped in one's hand.

  • Thank you very much.
    – user151836
    Mar 26, 2022 at 22:38

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