Early Warnings of Regime Shifts: A Whole-Ecosystem Experiment

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Science  28 Apr 2011:
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203672


Catastrophic ecological regime shifts may be announced in advance by statistical early-warning signals such as slowing return rates from perturbation and rising variance. The theoretical background for these indicators is rich but real-world tests are rare, especially for whole ecosystems. We tested the hypothesis that these statistics would be early-warning signals for an experimentally induced regime shift in an aquatic food web. We gradually added top predators to a lake over 3 years to destabilize its food web. An adjacent lake was monitored simultaneously as a reference ecosystem. Warning signals of a regime shift were evident in the manipulated lake during reorganization of the food web more than a year before the food web transition was complete, corroborating theory for leading indicators of ecological regime shifts.