Can noise induce chaos?

Brian Dennis, Robert A. Desharnais, J. M. Cushing, Shandelle M. Henson, R. F. Costantino

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


An important component of the mathematical definition of chaos is sensitivity to initial conditions. Sensitivity to initial conditions is usually measured in a deterministic model by the dominant Lyapunov exponent (LE), with chaos indicated by a positive LE. The sensitivity measure has been extended to stochastic models; however, it is possible for the stochastic Lyapunov exponent (SLE) to be positive when the LE of the underlying deterministic model is negative, and vice versa. This occurs because the LE is a long-term average over the deterministic attractor while the SLE is the long-term average over the stationary probability distribution. The property of sensitivity to initial conditions, uniquely associated with chaotic dynamics in deterministic systems, is widespread in stochastic systems because of time spent near repelling invariant sets (such as unstable equilibria and unstable cycles). Such sensitivity is due to a mechanism fundamentally different from deterministic chaos. Positive SLE's should therefore not be viewed as a hallmark of chaos. We develop examples of ecological population models in which contradictory LE and SLE values lead to confusion about whether or not the population fluctuations are primarily the result of chaotic dynamics. We suggest that "chaos" should retain its deterministic definition in light of the origins and spirit of the topic in ecology. While a stochastic system cannot then strictly be chaotic, chaotic dynamics can be revealed in stochastic systems through the strong influence of underlying deterministic chaotic invariant sets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)329-339
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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