Synchronization

Synchrony can alter system-level behavior by enhancing or dampening nonlinearities. For example, when predator and prey populations are tightly coupled to one another, a stable, negative feedback relationship can result where an increase in prey causes increased predators and a subsequent decrease in prey. In this case, the ecological

Figure 3 The emergence of order by stigmergy and feedback in an ant colony. Given a random scatter of objects (a), ants sort objects by picking them up and dropping them again when they find a similar object. This process creates piles, which grow over time. Large piles grow at the expense of smaller ones until only a few large piles remain (b).

Figure 3 The emergence of order by stigmergy and feedback in an ant colony. Given a random scatter of objects (a), ants sort objects by picking them up and dropping them again when they find a similar object. This process creates piles, which grow over time. Large piles grow at the expense of smaller ones until only a few large piles remain (b).

interaction acts like a thermostat regulating population size. However, if the two populations respond at different rates, oscillations or even chaotic behavior can occur instead. A classic example of such oscillations occurs in the interaction between populations of hares and lynxes in the Arctic Circle.

Synchronized breeding behavior is common and includes mass flowering in plants, mass breeding in birds, and mass spawning among marine animals such as corals and squid. In these cases, synchrony is usually achieved by individuals responding to a common environmental cue, such as a change in temperature or day length. Synchronized breeding conveys distinct advantages such as maximal exploitation of resources and satiation of predators.

Different species often have co-adapted simultaneous seasonal behavior, such as birds that breed when butterflies emerge. However, both the environmental cues, and the physiological response, may differ among these co-adapted species. For example, great tits time their egg laying by photoperiod. Winter moths are an important food source during the breeding season, and they develop more quickly at higher temperatures. As a result, recent warm springs in Europe caused by climate change have disrupted the synchronization between these species, reducing food availability for nesting great tits and potentially destabilizing populations.

In other cases, synchronous behavior arises through social contagion, where individuals imitate others. The dynamics of such behavior are similar to those seen in epidemiology. Social contagion can lead to coordinated group behavior such as flocking, as well as disparate phenomena such as synchronized flashing in fireflies, and 'fashions' in mate choice among birds and fish. The emergence of synchronous behavior in these cases is highly sensitive to the structure of social networks. Synchrony is easily achieved when networks are highly connected (i.e., individuals can perceive a large number of other individuals, or some individuals have very large influence). However, in loosely connected networks, social contagion can result in asynchronous waves or chaos.

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