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Chaos in a long-term experiment with a plankton community


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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Figure 1: Description of the plankton community in the mesocosm experiment.
Figure 2: Predictability of the species decreases with increasing prediction time.
Figure 3: Exponential divergence of the trajectories.


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We thank W. Ebenhöh for suggestions on the experimental design, H. Albrecht, G. Hinrich, J. Rodhe, S. Stolle and B. Walter for help during the experiment, T. Huebener, I. Telesh, R. Schumann, M. Feike and G. Arlt for advice in taxonomic identification, and B. M. Bolker and V. Dakos for comments on the manuscript. The research of E.B., K.D.J. and J.H. was supported by the Earth and Life Sciences Foundation (ALW), which is subsidized by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). S.P.E.’s research was supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Author Contributions R.H. ran the experiment, counted the species and measured the nutrient concentrations. E.B., J.H., K.D.J., P.B. and S.P.E. performed the time series analysis. E.B., J.H., M.S. and S.P.E. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jef Huisman.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The Supplementary Information presents detailed information on the following aspects of the long-term experiment and subsequent time series analysis:1) Materials and methods of the mesocosm experiment; 2) Earlier analysis of the same time series; 3) Transformation of the time series (including Figures S1-S2); 4) Spectral analysis (Figures S3-S4); 5) Predictability (Table S1, Figure S5); Methods for estimating Lyapunov exponents (Figures S6-S7); 7) Temperature fluctuations (Table S2, Figure S8). (PDF 1204 kb)

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Benincà, E., Huisman, J., Heerkloss, R. et al. Chaos in a long-term experiment with a plankton community. Nature 451, 822–825 (2008).

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