Shallow lakes theory revisited: various alternative regimes driven by climate, nutrients, depth and lake size

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Shallow lakes have become the archetypical example of ecosystems with alternative stable states. However, since the early conception of that theory, the image of ecosystem stability has been elaborated for shallow lakes far beyond the simple original model. After discussing how spatial heterogeneity and fluctuation of environmental conditions may affect the stability of lakes, we review work demonstrating that the critical nutrient level for lakes to become turbid is higher for smaller lakes, and seems likely to be affected by climatic change too. We then show how the image of just two contrasting states has been elaborated. Different groups of primary producers may dominate shallow lakes, and such states dominated by a particular group may often represent alternative stable states. In tropical lakes, or small stagnant temperate waters, free-floating plants may represent an alternative stable state. Temperate shallow lakes may be dominated alternatively by charophytes, submerged angiosperms, green algae or cyanobacteria. The change of the lake communities along a gradient of eutrophication may therefore be seen as a continuum in which gradual species replacements are interrupted at critical points by more dramatic shifts to a contrasting alternative regime dominated by different species. The originally identified shift between a clear and a turbid state remains one of the more dramatic examples, but is surely not the only discontinuity that can be observed in the response of these ecosystems to environmental change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)455-466
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • north-atlantic oscillation
  • submerged macrophytes
  • long-term
  • aquatic macrophytes
  • eutrophic lakes
  • food webs
  • potamogeton-pectinatus
  • stable states
  • chara-aspera
  • clear water

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