Dispersal-induced instability in complex ecosystems

Baron, Joseph W.; Galla, Tobias
Submitted (2020)

In his seminal work in the 1970s Robert May suggested that there was an upper limit to the number of species that could be sustained in stable equilibrium by an ecosystem. This deduction was at odds with both intuition and the observed complexity of many natural ecosystems. The so-called stability-diversity debate ensued, and the discussion about the factors making an ecosystem stable or unstable continues to this day. We show in this work that dispersal can be a destabilising influence. To do this, we combine ideas from Alan Turing's work on pattern formation with May's random-matrix approach. We demonstrate how a stable equilibrium in a complex ecosystem with two trophic levels can become unstable with the introduction of dispersal in space. Conversely, we show that Turing instabilities can occur more easily in complex ecosystems with many species than in the case of only a few species. Our work shows that adding more details to the model of May gives rise to more ways in which an equilibrium can become unstable. Making May's simple model more realistic is therefore unlikely to remove the upper bound on complexity.


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