Ecology

Timing Is Everything

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Science  06 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5954, pp. 773
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_773d
CREDIT: SIERRA NEVADA SPAIN, DR. MARTIN FEIKE; JEFFERY R. CORDELL

The mathematical description of coupled oscillations dates back to the 1665 analysis of pendulum clocks by Christiaan Huygens. Ecological models predict that populations of species in a community can exhibit similar oscillatory behaviors, giving rise to complicated patterns of synchrony and chaos in their dynamics. Benincà et al. provide an empirical confirmation of these predictions by studying a food web of phytoplankton prey and zooplankton predators that was maintained in the laboratory for 8 years. They observed that the chaotic dynamics of the populations were driven by the coupling of two predator-prey cycles, in which the larger phytoplankton species was eaten mainly by copepods and the smaller phytoplankton species was consumed by the relatively smaller zooplankton species—rotifers. Competition for resources between the phytoplankton species caused the predator-prey cycles to fluctuate out of phase, ultimately permitting the tenuous coexistence of the component species in the food web. Such principles may govern the longer-term, and hence less easily studied, dynamics of more intricate food webs involving longer-lived species.

Ecol. Lett. 12, 1367 (2009).

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