Estimating chaos and complex dynamics in an insect population

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations


A defining hypothesis of theoretical ecology during the past century has been that population fluctuations might largely be explained by relatively low-dimensional, nonlinear ecological interactions, provided such interactions could be correctly identified and modeled. The realization in recent decades that such nonlinear interactions might result in chaos and other exotic dynamic behaviors has been exciting but tantalizing, in that attributing the fluctuations of a particular real population to the complex dynamics of a particular mathematical model has proved to be an elusive goal. We experimentally tested a model-predicted sequence of transitions (bifurcations) in the dynamic behavior of a population from stable equilibria to quasiperiodic and periodic cycles to chaos to three-cycles using cultures of the flour beetle Tribolium. The predictions arose from a system of difference equations (the LPA model) describing the nonlinear life-stage interactions, predominantly cannibalism. We built a stochastic version of the model incorporating demographic variability and obtained conditional least-squares estimates for the model parameters. We generated 2000 "bootstrapped data Sets" with a time-series bootstrap technique, and for each set we reestimated the model parameters. The resulting 2000 bootstrapped parameter vectors were used to obtain confidence intervals for the model parameters and estimated distributions of the Liapunov exponents for the deterministic portion (the skeleton) of the model as well as for the full stochastic model. Frequency distributions of estimated dynamic behaviors of the skeleton at each experimental treatment were produced. For one treatment, over 83% of the bootstrapped parameter estimates corresponded to chaotic attractors, and the remainder of the estimates yielded high-period cycles. The low-dimensional skeleton accounted for at least 90% of the variability in the population abundances and accurately described the responses of populations to experimental demographic manipulations, including treatments for which the predicted dynamic behavior was chaos. Demographic stochasticity described the remaining noise quite well. We conclude that the fluctuations of experimental flour beetle populations are explained largely by known nonlinear forces involving cannibalistic-stage interactions. Claims of dynamic behavior such as periodic cycles or chaos must be accompanied by a consideration of the reliability of the estimated parameters and a realization that the population fluctuations are a blend of deterministic forces and stochastic events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)277-303
Number of pages27
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001


  • Bifurcations in dynamic behavior
  • Bootstrap parameter estimates
  • Chaos
  • Chaotic
  • Complex dynamics
  • Liapunov exponents
  • Mathematical modeling
  • Nonlinear
  • Periodic cycles
  • Population dynamics
  • Population model parameters, estimating
  • Quasiperiodicity
  • Tribolium

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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