Species fluctuations sustained by a cyclic succession at the edge of chaos

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Elisa BenincàJef Huisman


Although mathematical models and laboratory experiments have shown that species interactions can generate chaos, field evidence of chaos in natural ecosystems is rare. We report on a pristine rocky intertidal community located in one of the world's oldest marine reserves that has displayed a complex cyclic succession for more than 20 y. Bare rock was colonized by barnacles and crustose algae, they were overgrown by mussels, and the subsequent detachment of the mussels returned bare rock again. These processes generated irregular species fluctuations, such that the species coexisted over many generations without ever approaching a stable equilibrium state. Analysis of the species fluctuations revealed a dominant periodicity of about 2 y, a global Lyapunov exponent statistically indistinguishable from zero, and local Lyapunov exponents that alternated systematically between negative and positive values. This pattern indicates that the community moved back and forth between stabilizing and chaotic dynamics during the cyclic succession. The results are supported by a patch-occupancy model predicting similar patterns when the species interactions were exposed to seasonal variation. Our findings show that natural ecosystems can susta...Continue Reading


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