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Behavioral self-organization underlies the resilience of a coastal ecosystem

Hélène de Paoli, Tjisse van der Heide, Aniek van den Berg, Brian R. Silliman, Peter M. J. Herman, Johan van de Koppel



Significance. Theoretical models suggest that spatial self-organization enhances the resistance of ecosystems to disturbance. However, experiments investigating this important prediction are lacking. Our paper provides clear experimental evidence that spatial self-organization profoundly increases the ability of ecosystems to persist in the face of disturbance. The mechanisms underlying this positive impact of self-organization are driven by the combination of ecological and behavioral processes. Specifically, large-scale banded patterns in mussel beds created by ecological feedback processes facilitate fast behavioral aggregation of individual mussels into clumps, in turn improving mussel survival. Our study emphasizes the potential of harnessing spatial self-organization to enhance restoration success and persistence of threatened ecosystems.

Abstract. Self-organized spatial patterns occur in many terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems. Theoretical models and observational studies suggest self-organization, the formation of patterns due to ecological interactions, is critical for enhanced ecosystem resilience. However, experimental tests of this cross-ecosystem theory are lacking. In this study, we experimentally test the hypothesis that self-organized pattern formation improves the persistence of mussel beds (Mytilus edulis) on intertidal flats. In natural beds, mussels generate self-organized patterns at two different spatial scales: regularly spaced clusters of mussels at centimeter scale driven by behavioral aggregation and large-scale, regularly spaced bands at meter scale driven by ecological feedback mechanisms. To test for the relative importance of these two spatial scales of self-organization on mussel bed persistence, we conducted field manipulations in which we factorially constructed small-scale and/or large-scale patterns. Our results revealed that both forms of self-organization enhanced the persistence of the constructed mussel beds in comparison to nonorganized beds. Small-scale, behaviorally driven cluster patterns were found to be crucial for persistence, and thus resistance to wave disturbance, whereas large-scale, self-organized patterns facilitated reformation of small-scale patterns if mussels were dislodged. This study provides experimental evidence that self-organization can be paramount to enhancing ecosystem persistence. We conclude that ecosystems with self-organized spatial patterns are likely to benefit greatly from conservation and restoration actions that use the emergent effects of self-organization to increase ecosystem resistance to disturbance.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 30. (25 July 2017), pp. 8035-8040, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1619203114 
Key: INRMM:14401155

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