Order and Disorder in a Cyclically Competitive Ecological Community

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We consider a deterministic model of a rock-paper-scissors (RPS) cyclic ecological system. The model accounts for species mobility via Fickian diffusion, as well as interspecies interactions describing the cyclic competition scheme. The system admits both single-species equilibria (saddles) and a threespecies coexistence equilibrium state. We focus on the regime where coexistence is unstable. When there is no spatial dependence, the solution of the corresponding ordinary differential equation (ODE) system admits an attracting heteroclinic cycle consisting of orbits connecting the three single-species saddles in the RPS sequence, to which most solutions with physical initial conditions asymptote. When there is spatial dependence (partial differential equation system), we consider mixed initial conditions (all species cohabit the same spatial region), as well as patch initial conditions, where each species is isolated from the other two, and show that, when interspecies competition is not strong, spatiotemporal chaotic behavior generally occurs. We propose a mechanism for the development of chaos-patch splitting-whereby sufficiently large patches are repeatedly split by the diffusion of competitors into the patch. However, when there is strong interspecies competition, ordered spatiotemporal patterns can occur. We consider both 1D patterns, corresponding to a community confined to a thin, circular annulus, and 2D geometries, simulating a petri dish. We show that, in 1 dimension, traveling arrays of single-species patches, as well as modulated traveling waves, consisting of patches which periodically expand and contract (breather modes), exist. In 2 dimensions, spirals, as well as localized patches chasing each other in the RPS sequence, can occur. We consider length and temporal scales appropriate for a bacterial community in a laboratory setting, qualitatively modeling observed Escherichia coli cyclic bacterial systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-161
Number of pages33
JournalSIAM Journal on Applied Dynamical Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • Computational ecology
  • Heteroclinic cycles
  • Nonlinear dynamics
  • Rock-paper-scissors
  • Traveling waves

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Analysis
  • Modeling and Simulation


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