slow recovery from perturbations as a generic indicator of a nearby catastrophic shift

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The size of the basin of attraction in ecosystems with alternative stable states is often referred to as "ecological resilience." Ecosystems with a low ecological resilience may easily be tipped into an alternative basin of attraction by a stochastic event. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to measure ecological resilience in practice. Here we show that the rate of recovery from small perturbations (sometimes called "engineering resilience") is a remarkably good indicator of ecological resilience. Such recovery rates decrease as a catastrophic regime shift is approached, a phenomenon known in physics as "critical slowing down." We demonstrate the robust occurrence of critical slowing down in six ecological models and outline a possible experimental approach to quantify differences in recovery rates. In all the models we analyzed, critical slowing down becomes apparent quite far from a threshold point, suggesting that it may indeed be of practical use as an early warning signal. Despite the fact that critical slowing down could also indicate other critical transitions, such as a stable system becoming oscillatory, the robustness of the phenomenon makes it a promising indicator of loss of resilience and the risk of upcoming regime shifts in a system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)738-747
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • alternative stable states
  • regime shifts
  • resilience
  • stability
  • ecosystems
  • systems
  • climate
  • model
  • time
  • thresholds


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