One of the central questions of our paper was, “How stable are ecological communities during a mass extinction?” This might seem a bit of a silly question at first glance, with the obvious answer “Not stable at all!” But that is not necessarily the case. Consider yourself standing on the deck of a leaky shop which is filling gradually with water. You know that the ship is going down, but your situation is stable as long as the deck remains level, or at least until the water begins to lap around your knees. We often tend to think of mass extinctions as chaotic dramas, perhaps being influenced by the end Cretaceous event, 66 million years ago (mya), when a 10 kilometer asteroid collided with the Earth and much hell really did break loose. There is also a lot of talk these days about collapsing ecosystems, because we continue to warm up the planet, eat all the fish we can eat, and so on. But what would a Sixth Mass Extinction really look like? Would ecosystems collapse, or wind down slowly to shadows of their former selves? Did the citizens of a Roman city in Gaul turn out the lights one night in the 5th century CE, bid the ancient world farewell and lay out their clothes for the next morning’s Middle Ages? Or did they rather one day, in corner market conversation, question how the heck all those Germans wound up in government anyway? A little bit of both I suspect.
So getting back to our question of mass extinctions at the end of the Permian, some 252 mya, were ecosystems stable before the extinction, collapsing as species extinctions spiralled out of control, or were they whittled down to a hardy core? Did they become more sensitive to smaller insults, such as storms or droughts, or were they hardy cores? Answering these questions depends surprisingly on what you mean by “stability”. The term is used in various ways in ecology, and I’ve even been accused of using it in a rather narrow sense, in contrast to others who believe that there are many kinds of stability. I am not convinced that the latter is really the case, and even if it is, I would argue that there is only one important type of stability, and that is the likelihood that the community will persist, that is, continue to exist in pretty much the same form, under non-extreme environmental conditions. The conditions that have prevailed during the history of a stable community, including seven year droughts, megastorms, the occasional disease epidemic, etc., did not cause the community to collapse or its species to become extinct. This definition encompasses many aspects of stability. Consider again our boat, this time with no leaks. Whether it is at anchor in a calm bay, sailing steadily on smooth seas, heaving rhythmically on rolling waves, or pitching about chaotically in a storm, the most important question is, are you and the boat still afloat the next day? I therefore do not believe that there are many different kinds of community stability, but instead different aspects to the likelihood of persistence, and different ways to measure it.
In our paper we looked at one particular aspect of stability, commonly termed “local”. Let me explain why. Imagine our community is represented by a small ball, and its state is represented by its position on a landscape (Fig. 1; scientists love to imagine states as positions on an imaginary landscape). The landscape is rugged and hilly, and is shaped by the environment. If our ball is on a slope, it won’t stay there for very long, and its state will change. It is unstable. If it is located at the bottom of a basin though, then it will remain there, as long as nothing disturbs it. It is stable. If it is displaced by a small amount, remaining in the basin’s depression, then it will roll downhill and return to the bottom of the basin as soon as the displacing force is removed. Interestingly, with a little care one could also balance the ball on one of the peaks, and it will remain there, but that position is precarious and fragile. Any relatively minor force would serve to start a downhill roll. The basin is an “attractor“.
Now, there are a number of limitations to using local stability to describe the behaviours (dynamics) of which your community is capable. A perhaps obvious one is what happens as you increase the distance by which the ball is displaced. One possibility is that the community does not return to the basin of origin, but specifically what does happen to it depends on the topography of the landscape. A slightly more subtle set of questions, and the ones which we pursued, is what happens to the community between the time at which it is displaced (a little), and its return to the bottom of the basin? Is it a simple, Sisyphusean roll back down to the bottom of the basin? Does it happen quickly? What if the ball is kicked again before it’s finished rolling? These are important questions to ask when the planet is undergoing a slow, persistent environmental meltdown as it did 252 mya.
There are probably many interesting and important transient dynamics between departure and return. These can be very difficult to predict. To appreciate this, let us agree that our community really isn’t a ball at all, but is better described as a large collection of balls (species populations), many of which are connected to each other with ropes, pulleys and springs. The contraption now could even amplify a displacement, weaving about the slope, perhaps shifting to a new basin, or losing species along the way. These transient dynamics might be fairly common in real communities, and communities might in fact never really spend any time at the bottoms of basins, instead rolling about, tracing out complicated pathways in response to displacing forces, according to their system of species, ropes and springs.
So, what did our South African ecosystem do 252 mya as the planet became less and less hospitable?