In systems ranging from lakes and woodlands to coral reefs, the long-term ecosystem state may often be determined largely by rare extreme events such as wet ENSO years, droughts, or disease outbreaks. Such events can flip these systems into a contrasting state that represents either an alternative attractor or a transient that is slow enough to persist even if the frequency of events that push the system to this state is low. Here we show that escape from herbivores is a mechanism that can play a role in several state shifts of this kind. This can happen if plants become less susceptible to herbivory as they grow. Using a model we show that, surprisingly, this mechanism can lead to a situation where a brief resource pulse for plants may invoke a persistent shift to a high biomass state whereas gradual enrichment to the same resource level is insufficient to allow such a change. This counterintuitive phenomenon occurs if the numerical response of herbivores is sufficiently slow to allow the plants to use the resource pulse to escape to a safe biomass at which herbivory is reduced. Our results imply that rates of environmental change can sometimes be more important than their magnitude. This has many ramifications. On the conceptual side, our findings suggest that key mechanisms that regulate long-term ecosystem dynamics are easily missed by the traditional focus of modelers on equilibria. A more practical corollary is that increased climatic variability may have more profound effects in some ecosystems than gradual change in conditions.
- exploitation ecosystems