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Trends Ecol Evol. 2005 Feb;20(2):88-95. Epub 2004 Dec 2.

Criticality and disturbance in spatial ecological systems.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1048, USA.


Classical criticality describes sudden changes in the state of a system when underlying processes change slightly. At this transition, patchiness develops which lacks a characteristic or dominant spatial scale. Thus, criticality lies at the interface of two important subjects in ecology, threshold behavior and patchiness. Most ecological examples of criticality involve processes of disturbance and recovery; the spatial and temporal scales of these processes enable three different types of critical system to be distinguished: classical phase transitions, self organized criticality (SOC) and 'robust' criticality. Here, we review the properties defining these three types and their implications for threshold behavior and large intermittent temporal fluctuations, with examples taken from spatial stochastic models for predator-prey, infected-susceptible, and disturbance-recovery interactions. In critical systems, spatial properties of patchiness alone are insufficient indicators of impending sudden changes, unless complemented by the spatial and temporal scales of disturbance and recovery themselves.


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