Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Detecting alternative attractors in ecosystem dynamics

Saterberg, Torbjorn; McCann, Kevin


Saterberg and McCann introduce a time-series method to test whether systems exhibit alternative dynamical attractors. Through simulated and experimental data from a planktonic predator-prey system, their results show that if population dynamics are induced by internal factors to the system, then alternative dynamical attractors can be detected.Dynamical systems theory suggests that ecosystems may exhibit alternative dynamical attractors. Such alternative attractors, as for example equilibria and cycles, have been found in the dynamics of experimental systems. Yet, for natural systems, where multiple biotic and abiotic factors simultaneously affect population dynamics, it is more challenging to distinguish alternative dynamical behaviors. Although recent research exemplifies that some natural systems can exhibit alternative states, a robust methodology for testing whether these constitute distinct dynamical attractors is currently lacking. Here, using attractor reconstruction techniques we develop such a test. Applications of the methodology to simulated, experimental and natural time series data, reveal that alternative dynamical behaviors are hard to distinguish if population dynamics are governed by purely stochastic processes. However, if population dynamics are brought about also by mechanisms internal to the system, alternative attractors can readily be detected. Since many natural populations display evidence of such internally driven dynamics, our approach offers a method for empirically testing whether ecosystems exhibit alternative dynamical attractors.

Published in

Communications biology
2021, volume: 4, number: 1, article number: 975

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Aquatic Resources
McCann, Kevin
University of Guelph

UKÄ Subject classification


Publication Identifiers


URI (permanent link to this page)