Article

Direct observation of increasing recovery length before collapse of a marine benthic ecosystem

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0153 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0153
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Abstract

Ecosystems can experience catastrophic transitions to alternative states, yet recent results have suggested that slowing down in rates of recovery after a perturbation may provide advance warning that a critical transition is approaching. Perturbation experiments with microbial populations have supported this hypothesis under controlled laboratory conditions, but evidence from natural ecosystems remains rare. Here, we manipulated rocky intertidal canopy algae to test the hypothesis that the spatial scale at which the system recovers from a perturbation in space should increase as the system approaches the tipping point, marking the transition from a canopy-dominated to a turf-dominated state. Empirical estimates of recovery length, a recently proposed spatial indicator of an approaching tipping point, were obtained by comparing the spatial scale at which algal turfs propagated into canopy-degraded regions with decreasing canopy cover. We show that recovery length increased along the gradient in canopy degradation, providing field-based evidence of spatial signatures of critical slowing down in natural conditions.

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Acknowledgements

We thank E. Maggi, F. Bulleri, C. Ravaglioli and L. Tamburello for field and technical assistance, A. Rattray for useful comments on the manuscript, A. Perez-Escudero for helping to develop the model, R. Casagrandi and L. Mari for their feedback. The authors acknowledge financial support from University of Pisa through the PRA (PRA_2015_055) and MISTI projects, the latter in collaboration with MIT. J.G. also acknowledges support from an NIH New Innovator Award (DP2 AG044279).

Author information

Author notes

    • Martina Dal Bello

    Present address: Physics of Living Systems, Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 400 Technology Square, NE46-609, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.

    • Lei Dai

    Present address: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Department of Biology, University of Pisa, CoNISMa, Via Derna 1, Pisa 56126, Italy.

    • Luca Rindi
    • , Martina Dal Bello
    •  & Lisandro Benedetti-Cecchi
  2. Physics of Living Systems, Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 400 Technology Square, NE46-609, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.

    • Lei Dai
    •  & Jeff Gore

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Contributions

L.R. and L.B.-C. designed the study. L.R. did the analyses and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. M.D.B., L.D. and J.G. assisted with the analysis. L.R., M.D.B and L.B.-C. performed the experiment. All authors contributed to interpreting the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luca Rindi.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods; Supplementary Figures 1–7; Supplementary Table 1