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Am Nat. 2005 Mar;165(3):E66-77. Epub 2005 Jan 20.

Scale-dependent feedback and regular spatial patterns in young mussel beds.

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Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), P.O. Box 140, 4400 AC Yerseke, The Netherlands.


In the past decade, theoretical ecologists have emphasized that local interactions between predators and prey may invoke emergent spatial patterning at larger spatial scales. However, empirical evidence for the occurrence of emergent spatial patterning is scarce, which questions the relevance of the proposed mechanisms to ecological theory. We report on regular spatial patterns in young mussel beds on soft sediments in the Wadden Sea. We propose that scale-dependent feedback, resulting from short-range facilitation by mutual protection from waves and currents and long-range competition for algae, induces spatial self-organization, thereby providing a possible explanation for the observed patterning. The emergent self-organization affects the functioning of mussel bed ecosystems by enhancing productivity and resilience against disturbance. Moreover, self-organization allows mussels to persist at algal concentrations that would not permit survival of mussels in a homogeneous bed. Our results emphasize the importance of self-organization in affecting the emergent properties of natural systems at larger spatial scales.

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