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WHAT IS ECOLOGICAL STABILITY? In 2019 I posed this question informally to colleagues, using Twitter, a professional workshop that I lead, and a conference. Respondents on Twitter consisted mostly of ecological scientists, but the workshop included paleontologists, biologists, physicists, applied mathematicians, and an array of social scientists, including sociologists, anthropologists, economists, archaeologists, political scientists, historians and others. And this happened…

Previous posts in this series:

In chaos, there is fertility. Anais Nin

The importance of r (and R)

The previous post outlined the circumstances in which an intrinsically stable logistic population can deviate from equilibrium, or its attractor, when perturbed by the external environment. Those deviations are brought about by either direct perturbation of the population, or an alteration of the environment’s carrying capacity (for that species). There is a third parameter, however, that determines dynamics in our models, and that is the rate of increase (r or R). It is a life-history trait determined by the evolutionary history of the species (and population), and interaction of that trait with the environment. Its influence on X(t) is generally to accelerate (or decelerate) the overall rate of population growth, with higher values causing higher overall rates. We can see this by repeating the earlier perturbation example, but with a smaller value of r (Fig. 1). The rate at which a population recovers from a disturbance is therefore determined by its intrinsic rate of increase. This is one measure of resilience. Resilience has (too many) varied meanings in ecology and other sciences, and is typically applied to communities or ecosystems, i.e. multi-population systems. In this instance, however, resilience means specifically the time taken for the system to return to equilibrium, and can therefore be applied to our population. Holling (Holling, 1973) has termed this type of resilience engineering resilience, as the concept has broad application in physics and engineering. Under this definition, populations that recover more quickly are considered to be more resilient. Thus, the rate at which a population recovers from a negative perturbation is directly proportional to its intrinsic rate of increase.

Two populations with different intrinsic rates (blue, $R=0.25$; orange, $R=0.5$; $K=100$) recovering from simultaneous and numerically equal direct perturbations. The population with the higher $r$ recovers faster to equilibrium, and thus has greater engineering resilience.
Two populations with different intrinsic rates (blue, R=0.25; orange, R=0.5; K=100) recovering from simultaneous and numerically equal direct perturbations. The population with the higher r recovers faster to equilibrium, and thus has greater engineering resilience.

Importantly, however, a population isolated from conspecific populations can never grow faster than its intrinsic rate of increase.


The intrinsic rate of increase can also be a source of dynamics more complex than those presented so far. This is particularly acute in the discrete time, or difference, models because of the recursive feedback loop present in those models (i.e. X(t + 1) is a direct function of X(t)). May (1976) highlighted this using a discrete logistic model.

EQ. 1: (future population size) = [(intrinsic growth rate) x (current population size)] x (growth limited by carrying capacity)

x(t+1) = rx(t)[1-x(t)]

where x is population size standardized to a carrying capacity of 1 and is restricted to the interval 0 < x < 1, and r is the intrinsic growth rate.

May showed that very complex dynamics, such as chaos, can emerge from this very simple model of population growth with non-overlapping generations, as r is increased. The same holds true for the discrete Ricker logistic model presented earlier (Eq. 1). In that model, values of R < 2.0 yield the expected equilibrium logistic growth, but even at values as low as 1.8 < R ≤ 1.9, interesting behaviours begin to emerge — approaching the carrying capacity, population size will overshoot K very slightly before converging to it (Fig. 2A). This is a transient, pre-equilibrium excursion. At R = 2.0 the system undergoes a dramatic shift from the single-valued equilibrium point to an oscillation between two values around the carrying capacity (Fig. 2B). You will notice that the transient overshoot is preserved, and in fact the amplitude of the oscillation is initially large, but the system eventually converges to two fixed values. Those values represent a new attractor, because the system will always converge to an oscillation between them. The value R = 2.0 is a critical point at which the system is said to undergo a bifurcation, with the equilibrium now consisting of two population sizes.

Transitions of a discrete logistic function with increasing $R$. Values of $R$, from upper plot to lower: 1.9, 2.0,
Transitions of a discrete logistic function with increasing R. Values of R, from upper plot to lower: 1.9, 2.0. K=100, and X(0)=1.0. The upper plot illustrates a quasiperiodic series, while the lower plot is chaotic. Each series was iterated for 30 generations. Plots on the left show population size, while on the right they plot the attractor for the entire series.

The amplitude of the oscillations grows as R increases, and the system eventually undergoes further bifurcations, e.g. where the population oscillates between four fixed points. Is the population still stable? The determination of stability now depends on two factors, the first of which is the timescale at which the population is observed. Population sizes and the attractor are repeating cycles, with X(t) cycling (or “orbiting”) between an ordered set of points. Therefore, if the length of time over which X is observed exceeds the period of the attractor, one will observe the system repeating itself, but if it is shorter, the question of stability remains open unless the underlying dynamical law is known. Second, the observation of multiple cycles allows a complete description of the system’s dynamics, and one could then conclude that the system is confined to a compact subset of the phase space. Most importantly, one would conclude that the system is deterministic and predictable. Recall that deterministic means that the entire future trajectory of the system is knowable, given the law by which the system evolves or unfolds over time, i.e. the dynamic equation and the initial condition of the system (X(0)). This is a very Newtonian system which will continue in this manner unless or until acted upon by an external force. The system is as stable as it was when it possessed a simple equilibrium, the only difference being that the attractor now traces a fixed trajectory in phase space comprising multiple values rather than occupying a single point. We can therefore refine our definition of stability.

Intrinsic stability: An intrinsically stable population expresses a finite set of infinitely repeating values.

This definition encompasses both our earlier simple equilibrium, and our newer oscillatory equilibria. It also encompasses further bifurcations that the system undergoes as R is increased, e.g. to a four point attractor.

Bifurcation — The point at which a (nonlinear) dynamic system develops twice the number of solutions that it had prior to that point.
Engineering resilience — The time taken for a system displaced from equilibrium to return to equilibrium.

Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual review of Ecology and Systematics, 4(1):1–23.
May, R. M. (1976). Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics. Nature, 261(5560):459–467.