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:

Quasiperiodicity

The story of R does not end with bifurcations and oscillations. Increasing R beyond our explorations in the previous post yields continuing bifurcation, and reveals yet another type of dynamic where the system continues to oscillate between several values, but now only approximately. The cycle does not repeat precisely, only coming close to previous values. Such cycles are often termed “quasiperiodic”. The attractor of a quasiperiodic system is an apt visual descriptor of the system’s dynamics (Fig. 1). Long-term observations of a quasiperiodic system are unlikely to yield a precise repetition of values, but the attractor is nevertheless bound in phase space. This system can therefore be described sufficiently in a statistical manner, and is invariant to variation of the initial condition (X(0) ) of the system. The trajectory in phase space visits the attractor’s distinct regions in a repeating cycle termed an invariant loop (Fig. 1). Fig. 1 — Transitions of a discrete logistic function with increasing R. R=2.7, K=100, and X(0)=1.0. The plot illustrates a quasiperiodic series. The series was iterated for 2,000 generations. Plot on the left shows population size for generations 1900-1930, while on the right is plotted the attractor for the entire series. Grey lines on the attractor plot traces the trajectory of the populations in phase space.

The system, however, is intrinsically noisy, and this raises two questions: (1) Can a noisy system be stable? (2) Can intrinsic noise be distinguished from noise generated in response to external factors? Answering the first question is difficult because our previous definition of stability no longer applies for the following technical reason: Population size X is measured as a real number. Given any two real numbers, there is an infinite count of real numbers of greater precision between them. Therefore, in the example figured below, although the quasiperiodic attractor consists of four visibly distinct regions, the population could cycle among those regions without ever precisely repeating itself! Deciding the stability of a system on this basis, however, would seem to be both an unnecessary mathematical technicality as well as impractically misleading to the scientist. The system is still bound by the attractor, for all “closed” situations, and the compactness of the attractor ensures statistical predictability given an adequate number of observations. I therefore choose to classify it as stable. There are two cautionary notes for practitioners though. First, apparent noise in this system is generated by an intrinsic, deterministic component, and is not due to external influences. Second, variability of a system’s dynamics is not necessarily an indication of instability. Let’s summarize this, because it becomes important in later discussions.

The intrinsic properties of a population may generate infinitely variable, but nevertheless deterministic and statistically predictable dynamics.

Quasiperiodicity is a well-documented phenomenon in climatic and oceanographic systems (e.g. McCabe et al., 2004), where processes such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation possess intrinsic oscillatory properties that are not completely overridden by external drivers (e.g. orbital dynamics), resulting in approximate and drifting semi-cycles.

Chaos

Increasing R even further yields a transition to a final and most complex type of dynamics. Figure 2 illustrates the dynamics when R = 3.3. The time series of X is a succession of apparently randomly varying population sizes, with X sometimes exceeding 2K (K = 100), and also coming perilously close to zero (extinction). Yet, the attractor shows that these values belong to a compact subset of phase space, in fact one that is similar to the quasiperiodic attractor, but where the dense regions of the latter attractor are now connected by intervening points. More significantly, X no longer traces a regular cyclic path or loop through the attractor, but instead jumps unpredictably from one region to another. This is chaos (Li and Yorke, 1975). Fig. 2 — Transitions of a discrete logistic function with increasing R. R=3.3, K=100, and X(0)=1.0. The plot illustrates a chaotic series. The series was iterated for 2,000 generations. Plot on the left shows population size for generations 1900-1930, while on the right is plotted the attractor for the entire series. Grey lines on the attractor plot traces the trajectory of the populations in phase space.

CHAOTIC SYSTEMS ARE EXERCISES IN CONTRASTS. For example, chaotic systems are deterministic, not random (see Strogatz, 2018). The specification of a dynamical law (here our function for population growth) and an initial condition (initial population size) will always produce precisely the same population dynamics. Furthermore, chaotic attractors occupy well-defined regions of the phase space. Those attractors, however, will encompass an infinite set of values, are generally not loops, and are therefore described as “strange attractors” (David and Floris, 1971). This is a consequence of one of the most important features of chaotic systems, their sensitive dependence on initial conditions. All the systems discussed so far have equilibria or attractors that could be described as convergent, meaning that if two populations obeying the same dynamic law were started at slightly different initial population sizes, they would either eventually converge to the same equilibrial size (single state and stable oscillatory dynamics), or remain close in value (quasiperiodic). Chaotic systems come with no such guarantees, and populations with very small differences in initial size will diverge away from each other, ultimately generating different dynamics. They will nevertheless be confined to the strange attractor.

The transitions of dynamics exhibited by our discrete logistic Ricker model (Eq. 1 here), and also the logistic map (Eq. 1 here), are driven entirely by increasing the population growth rate R. The full set of transitions can be mapped with a bifurcation diagram which plots all the values that population size will attain for a particular value of R after an initial period of transient growth (Fig. 3). Thus, for R < 2.0, X(t) = K as t goes to infinity, but when R ≥ 2.0 the system undergoes its first bifurcation to a stable oscillation between two values. This is the first branch point on the diagram. The divergence of the branches as R increases reflects the increasing amplitude of oscillations around K. The transition to chaos at R = 2.692 for the discrete logistic model is obvious, as X now takes on a multitude of values, yet is bound within a range. Bifurcation map of the Ricker function. Points show all population sizes at a given value of R for the range t=1900 to 2000. X(n) is population size relative to carrying capacity K=1). Stable bifurcations are obvious, beginning at R=2.0, and chaotic regions are identifiable as being occupied by numerous points.

Vocabulary
Bifurcation — The point at which a (nonlinear) dynamic system develops twice the number of solutions that it had prior to that point.
Real number — A real number is one that can be written as an infinite decimal expansion. The set of real numbers, R, includes the negative and positive integers, fractions, and the irrational numbers.

References
David, R. and Floris, T. (1971). On the nature of turbulence. Communications in Mathematical Physics, 20:167–92.
Li, T.-Y. and Yorke, J. A. (1975). Period three implies chaos. The American Mathematical Monthly, 82(10):985–992.
McCabe, G. J., Palecki, M. A., and Betancourt, J. L. (2004). Pacific and Atlantic Ocean influences on multidecadal drought frequency in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(12):4136–4141.
Strogatz, S. H. (2018). Nonlinear dynamics and chaos: with applications to physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering. CRC Press.