Ecology Letters (2009) 12: 1367–1378
Coupling of several predator–prey oscillations can generate intriguing patterns of synchronization and chaos. Theory predicts that prey species will fluctuate in phase if predator–prey cycles are coupled through generalist predators, whereas they will fluctuate in anti-phase if predator–prey cycles are coupled through competition between prey species. Here, we investigate predator–prey oscillations in a long-term experiment with a marine plankton community. Wavelet analysis of the species fluctuations reveals two predator–prey cycles that fluctuate largely in anti-phase. The phase angles point at strong competition between the phytoplankton species, but relatively little prey overlap among the zooplankton species. This food web architecture is consistent with the size structure of the plankton community, and generates highly dynamic food webs. Continued alternations in species dominance enable coexistence of the prey species through a non-equilibrium ‘killing-the-winner’ mechanism, as the system shifts back and forth between the two predator–prey cycles in a chaotic fashion.