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Regular patterns link individual behavior to population persistence

Frederic Guichard

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Resisting and recovering from disturbances is a necessity for most species. The strategy is sometimes collective, depending on the aggregation of interacting individuals into regular patterns. However, relating patterns of abundance across scales to both individual behavior and population persistence remains a major challenge for ecology. Such patterns are found in many ecosystems, ranging from microbes to forests, with their regularity taking the form of evenly sized and spaced bands and patches of aggregated individuals. Regular patterns are said to be self-organized when they emerge from local interactions among individuals that are a combination of positive and negative feedbacks. Positive feedbacks mean that growth and survival increase with the density of individuals. Such “safety in numbers” is found in many natural systems, including saltmarshes, arid vegetation, and mussel beds, where individuals can gain protection from physical disturbances, such as waves or erosion. However, aggregation also means competing for limited resources, which leads to negative feedbacks between density and growth. The combination of positive and negative feedbacks illustrates the “balance of nature”, and could lead to a homogeneous distribution, but their properties can produce much more complex dynamics. First, their nonlinearity means that growth and survival can show abrupt changes with small changes in density, which can prevent populations from reaching an equilibrium state. Second, most ecological interactions among individuals occur over limited spatial scales (i.e., between neighbors). When the spatial extent of positive effects is shorter than the extent of negative competitive effects, regular patterns of aggregation can emerge [...]. When it is the temporal scales of feedbacks that differ instead, self-organized patterns can emerge as a scale-free distribution of aggregated individuals [...].

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 30. (25 July 2017), pp. 7747-7749, 
Key: INRMM:14401148



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