Are rapid transitions between invasive and native species caused by alternative stable states, and does it matter?

Gretchen J.A. Hansen, Anthony R. Ives, M. Jake Vander Zanden, Stephen R. Carpenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Rapid transitions in ecosystem structure, or regime shifts, are a hallmark of alternative stable states (ASS). However, regime shifts can occur even when feedbacks are not strong enough to cause ASS. We investigated the potential for ASS to explain transitions between dominance of an invasive species, rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), and native sunfishes (Lepomis spp.) in northern Wisconsin (USA) lakes. A rapid transition from Lepomis to rusty crayfish dominance occurred as rusty crayfish invaded Trout Lake, and the reverse transition resulted from an eight-year experimental removal of rusty crayfish from Sparkling Lake. We fit a stage-structured population model of species interactions to 31 years of timeseries data from each lake. The model identified water level as an important driver, with drought conditions reducing rusty crayfish recruitment and allowing Lepomis dominance. The maximum-likelihood parameter estimates of the negative interaction between rusty crayfish and Lepomis led to ASS in the model, where each species was capable of excluding the other within a narrow range of environmental conditions. However, uncertainty in parameter estimates made it impossible to exclude the potential that rapid transitions were caused by a simpler threshold response lacking alternative equilibria. Simulated forward and backward transitions between species dominance occurred at different environmental conditions (i.e., hysteresis), even when the parameters used for simulation did not predict ASS as a result of slow species responses to environmental drivers. Thus, ASS are possible, but by no means certain, explanations for rapid transitions in this system, and our results highlight the difficulties associated with distinguishing ASS from other types of threshold responses. However, whether regime shifts are caused by ASS may be relatively unimportant in this system, as the range of conditions over which transitions occur is narrow, and under most conditions, the system is predicted to exist in only a single state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2207-2219
Number of pages13
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Alternative stable states
  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Invasive species
  • Lepomis spp.
  • Orconectes rusticus
  • Regime shift
  • Rusty crayfish
  • Sunfishes
  • Threshold
  • Time series
  • Water level


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