Nature 451, 822-825 (14 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06512; Received 14 September 2007; Accepted 29 November 2007

Chaos in a long-term experiment with a plankton community

Elisa Benincà1,2,5, Jef Huisman1,5, Reinhard Heerkloss3, Klaus D. Jöhnk1,6, Pedro Branco1, Egbert H. Van Nes2, Marten Scheffer2 & Stephen P. Ellner4

  1. Aquatic Microbiology, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, Nieuwe Achtergracht 127, 1018 WS Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  2. Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, University of Wageningen, Wageningen, the Netherlands
  3. Institute of Biosciences, University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany
  4. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA
  5. These authors contributed equally to this work.
  6. Present address: Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Alte Fischerhütte 2, 16775 Neuglobsow, Germany.

Correspondence to: Jef Huisman1,5 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.H. (Email: jef.huisman@science.uva.nl).

Mathematical models predict that species interactions such as competition and predation can generate chaos1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. However, experimental demonstrations of chaos in ecology are scarce, and have been limited to simple laboratory systems with a short duration and artificial species combinations9, 10, 11, 12. Here, we present the first experimental demonstration of chaos in a long-term experiment with a complex food web. Our food web was isolated from the Baltic Sea, and consisted of bacteria, several phytoplankton species, herbivorous and predatory zooplankton species, and detritivores. The food web was cultured in a laboratory mesocosm, and sampled twice a week for more than 2,300 days. Despite constant external conditions, the species abundances showed striking fluctuations over several orders of magnitude. These fluctuations displayed a variety of different periodicities, which could be attributed to different species interactions in the food web. The population dynamics were characterized by positive Lyapunov exponents of similar magnitude for each species. Predictability was limited to a time horizon of 15–30 days, only slightly longer than the local weather forecast. Hence, our results demonstrate that species interactions in food webs can generate chaos. This implies that stability is not required for the persistence of complex food webs, and that the long-term prediction of species abundances can be fundamentally impossible.


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