Scaling up our understanding of tipping points

Sonia Kéfi, Camille Saade, Eric L. Berlow, Juliano S. Cabral and Emanuel A. Fronhofer

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences; Vol.: 377; Issue: 1857; Article No.: 20210386

Anthropogenic activities are increasingly affecting ecosystems across the globe. Meanwhile, empirical and theoretical evidence suggest that natural systems can exhibit abrupt collapses in response to incremental increases in the stressors, sometimes with dramatic ecological and economic consequences. These catastrophic shifts are faster and larger than expected from the changes in the stressors and happen once a tipping point is crossed. The primary mechanisms that drive ecosystem responses to perturbations lie in their architecture of relationships, i.e. how species interact with each other and with the physical environment and the spatial structure of the environment. Nonetheless, existing theoretical work on catastrophic shifts has so far largely focused on relatively simple systems that have either few species and/or no spatial structure. This work has laid a critical foundation for understanding how abrupt responses to incremental stressors are possible, but it remains difficult to predict (let alone manage) where or when they are most likely to occur in more complex real-world settings. Here, we discuss how scaling up our investigations of catastrophic shifts from simple to more complex—species rich and spatially structured—systems could contribute to expanding our understanding of how nature works and improve our ability to anticipate the effects of global change on ecological systems.

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