The Robert H. MacArthur Award Lecture. Timescales, Dynamics, and Ecological Understanding

Ecology. 2010 Dec;91(12):3471-80; discussion 3503-14. doi: 10.1890/10-0776.1.


Explicit consideration of timescales and dynamics is required for an understanding of fundamental issues in ecology. Endogenous dynamics can lead to transient states where asymptotic behavior is very different from dynamics on short timescales. The causes of these kinds of transients can be placed in one of three classes: linear systems with different timescales embedded or exhibiting reactive behavior, the potentially long times to reach synchrony across space for oscillating systems, and the complex dynamics of systems with strong density-dependent (nonlinear) interactions. It is also important to include the potentially disparate timescales inherent in ecological systems when determining the endogenous dynamics. I argue that the dynamics of ecological systems can best be understood as the response, which may include transient dynamics, to exogenous influences leading to the observed dynamics on ecologically relevant timescales. This view of ecosystem behavior as responses of ecological systems governed by endogenous dynamics to exogenous influences provides a synthetic way to unify different approaches to population dynamics, to understand mechanisms that determine the distribution and abundance of species, and to manage ecosystems on appropriate timescales. There are implications for theoretical approaches, empirical approaches, and the statistical approaches that bridge theory and observation.

Publication types

  • Lecture
  • Portrait
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Awards and Prizes
  • Ecology
  • Ecosystem*
  • Epidemiology
  • Food Chain
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Seasons
  • Stochastic Processes
  • Time Factors