Biodiv Sci ›› 2020, Vol. 28 ›› Issue (11): 1417-1430.  DOI: 10.17520/biods.2020233

• Reviews • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Alternative stable states and tipping points of ecosystems

Chi Xu1,*(), Haijun Wang2, Quanxing Liu3, Bo Wang1   

  1. 1 School of Life Sciences, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210023
    2 Institute for Ecological Research and Pollution Control of Plateau Lakes, School of Ecology and Environmental Science, Yunnan University, Kunming 656504
    3 School of Ecological and Environmental Sciences, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200241
  • Received:2020-06-09 Accepted:2020-10-24 Online:2020-11-20 Published:2020-12-21
  • Contact: Chi Xu


Many ecosystems may experience abrupt shifts at certain tipping points subject to gradual environmental changes or small perturbations. The theory of alternative stable states has been applied to explain a wide range of observed ecosystem tipping points. In recent years, alternative ecosystem states and tipping points have received increasing attention among both researchers and the public. Here, we reviewed the theoretical basis of alternative stable states, the approaches for detecting the existence of alternative stable states, and a set of “generic early warning indicators” for anticipating the transitions between alternative stable states. We also reviewed typical cases to demonstrate how the alternative stable states theory is linked to real-world ecosystems. and discuss the potential misuse and controversy with respect to the concept and applications of this theory. We expect to provide useful references to Chinese audiences in the fields of nonlinear ecosystem dynamics, ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation in a changing world.

Key words: regime shift, critical transition, bifurcation, early warning signal, resilience, self-organization