Chaos is more common in ecosystems than scientists thought

(ORDO NEWS) — American researchers have come to the conclusion that chaotic dynamics is characteristic of a much larger number of ecosystems than previously thought. Chaos occurs most frequently in populations of small organisms with short life spans.

Populations of organisms in natural ecosystems never remain static. Their numbers are constantly changing, and scientists are trying to understand whether these fluctuations are regular (that is, whether they change around some theoretically “stable” equilibrium) or random – completely unpredictable, chaotic.

An example of a chaotic system is the weather, which is predictable only in the short term, but not in the long term, and is also extremely sensitive to small changes in initial conditions.

Understanding population dynamics is critical to predicting population size and responses to external influences. Scientists from the University of California at Santa Cruz (USA) have concluded that chaos is much more common in natural ecosystems than previously thought.

According to the conclusions of this work, chaotic dynamics is typical for more than 30% of all studied populations. Previous similar studies have shown that chaos in natural populations is either extremely rare or non-existent.

According to the authors of the article, this conclusion could be associated with limited data and the use of incorrect methods, and not with the real stability of ecosystems.

Huge volumes of data that exist today make it possible to analyze the dynamics of populations over a long period of time, which is extremely important for the search for chaotic fluctuations. In the study, the scientists used new or updated chaos detection algorithms that were rigorously tested on simulated datasets.

They then applied the three best practices to a data set of 172 population dynamics from the Global Population Dynamics database.

The presence of chaotic population dynamics was associated with the lifespan and body size of animals. Chaos was most common in plankton and insect populations, and least common among birds and mammals.

The results of the study showed that environmental forecasts may have inherent limitations. The authors advise avoiding equilibrium-based predictions, especially for short-lived species.

Their results can be widely applied in the development of environmental strategies. For example, in fisheries management, it is necessary to predict the size of the fish population in order to set a limit on catching.

At the same time, one must take into account the presence of chaos in the system, otherwise one can miss the opportunities for short-term forecasting or make many errors in long-term predictions.

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