Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rapid evolution drives ecological dynamics in a predator–prey system


Ecological and evolutionary dynamics can occur on similar timescales1,2,3,4,5,6,7. However, theoretical predictions of how rapid evolution can affect ecological dynamics8 are inconclusive and often depend on untested model assumptions8. Here we report that rapid prey evolution in response to oscillating predator density affects predator–prey (rotifer–algal) cycles in laboratory microcosms. Our experiments tested explicit predictions from a model for our system that allows prey evolution9. We verified the predicted existence of an evolutionary tradeoff between algal competitive ability and defence against consumption, and examined its effects on cycle dynamics by manipulating the evolutionary potential of the prey population. Single-clone algal cultures (lacking genetic variability) produced short cycle periods and typical quarter-period phase lags between prey and predator densities, whereas multi-clonal (genetically variable) algal cultures produced long cycles with prey and predator densities nearly out of phase, exactly as predicted. These results confirm that prey evolution can substantially alter predator–prey dynamics, and therefore that attempts to understand population oscillations in nature10,11 cannot neglect potential effects from ongoing rapid evolution.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Predicted effects of prey clonal diversity on population dynamics.
Figure 2: Experimental results showing the population cycles of rotifer–alga systems.
Figure 3: Cycle periods for experimental populations of B. calyciflorus (filled circles) and C. vulgaris (open circles).


  1. 1

    Hairston, N. G. Jr et al. Rapid evolution revealed by dormant eggs. Nature 401, 446 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Huey, R. B., Gilchrist, G. W., Carlson, M. L., Berrigan, D. & Serra, L. Rapid evolution of a geographic cline in size in an introduced fly. Science 287, 308–309 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Hendry, A. P., Wenburg, J. K., Bentzen, P., Volk, E. C. & Quinn, T. P. Rapid evolution of reproductive isolation in the wild: Evidence from introduced salmon. Science 290, 516–518 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Thompson, J. N. et al. Frontiers of ecology. BioScience 51, 15–24 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Palumbi, S. R. The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change (W. W. Norton, New York, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Sinervo, B., Svensson, E. & Comendant, T. Density cycles and an offspring quantity and quality game driven by natural selection. Nature 406, 985–988 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Bohannan, B. J. M. & Lenski, R. E. Linking genetic change to community evolution: Insights from studies of bacteria and bacteriophage. Ecol. Lett. 3, 362–377 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Abrams, P. A. The evolution of predator–prey interactions: theory and evidence. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 31, 79–105 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Shertzer, K. W., Ellner, S. P., Fussmann, G. F. & Hairston, N. G. Jr Predator–prey cycles in an aquatic microcosm: Testing hypotheses of mechanism. J. Anim. Ecol. 71, 802–815 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Berryman, A. (ed.) Population Cycles: The Case for Trophic Interactions (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)

  11. 11

    Turchin, P. Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical/Empirical Synthesis (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Pickett-Heaps, J. D. Green Algae: Structure, Reproduction and Evolution in Selected Genera (Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts, 1975)

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Fussmann, G. F., Ellner, S. P., Shertzer, K. W. & Hairston, N. G. Jr Crossing the Hopf bifurcation in a live predator–prey system. Science 290, 1358–1360 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Vermeij, G. J. Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Vermeij, G. J. The evolutionary interaction among species: selection, escalation, and coevolution. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 25, 219–236 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Tollrian, R. & Harvell, C. D. (eds) The Ecology and Evolution of Inducible Defenses (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999)

  17. 17

    Kendall, B. E. et al. Why do populations cycle? A synthesis of statistical and mechanistic modeling approaches. Ecology 80, 1789–1805 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Lambin, X., Krebs, C. J., Moss, R. & Yoccoz, N. G. in Population Cycles: The Case for Trophic Interactions (ed. Berryman, A.) 155–176 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Hillborn, R. & Mangel, M. The Ecological Detective: Confronting Models with Data (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    McCauley, E., Nisbet, R. M., Murdoch, W. W., de Roos, A. M. & Gurney, W. S. C. Large-amplitude cycles of Daphnia and its algal prey in enriched environments. Nature 402, 653–656 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Turchin, P. et al. Dynamical effects of plant quality and parasitism on population cycles of larch budmoth. Ecology (in the press)

  22. 22

    Halbach, U. & Halbach-Keup, G. Quantitative relations between phytoplankton and the population dynamics of the rotifer Brachionus calyciflorus Pallas. Results of laboratory experiments and field studies. Arch. Hydrobiol. 73, 273–309 (1974)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Rothhaupt, K. O. Algal nutrient limitation affects rotifer growth rate but not ingestion rate. Limnol. Oceanogr. 40, 1201–1208 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Monod, J. La technique de culture continue: theorie et applications. Ann. Inst. Pasteur Lille 79, 390–410 (1950)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Ihaka, R. & Gentleman, R. R: a language for data analysis and graphics. J. Comp. Graph. Stat. 5, 299–314 (1996)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank B. Kendall, K. Shertzer, J. Urabe and members of the EEB theoretical ecology ‘lunch-bunch’ for comments on the manuscript; A. Sasaki and C. Aquadro for discussions on clonal evolution; and M. Armsby, S. Hammer, M. Hung, C. Kearns, K. Keller and J. Meyer for assistance with the experiments. The study was supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to S.P.E. and N.G.H.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nelson G. Hairston Jr.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Yoshida, T., Jones, L., Ellner, S. et al. Rapid evolution drives ecological dynamics in a predator–prey system. Nature 424, 303–306 (2003).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing