Robust scaling in ecosystems and the meltdown of patch size distributions before extinction




Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 29–35


Robust critical systems are characterized by power laws which occur over a broad range of conditions. Their robust behaviour has been explained by local interactions. While such systems could be widespread in nature, their properties are not well understood. Here, we study three robust critical ecosystem models and a null model that lacks spatial interactions. In all these models, individuals aggregate in patches whose size distributions follow power laws which melt down under increasing external stress. We propose that this power-law decay associated with the connectivity of the system can be used to evaluate the level of stress exerted on the ecosystem. We identify several indicators along the transition to extinction. These indicators give us a relative measure of the distance to extinction, and have therefore potential application to conservation biology, especially for ecosystems with self-organization and critical transitions.