Reactivity of complex communities can be more important than stability.
Yang Y., Coyte KZ., Foster KR., Li A.
Understanding stability-whether a community will eventually return to its original state after a perturbation-is a major focus in the study of various complex systems, particularly complex ecosystems. Here, we challenge this focus, showing that short-term dynamics can be a better predictor of outcomes for complex ecosystems. Using random matrix theory, we study how complex ecosystems behave immediately after small perturbations. Our analyses show that many communities are expected to be 'reactive', whereby some perturbations will be amplified initially and generate a response that is directly opposite to that predicted by typical stability measures. In particular, we find reactivity is prevalent for complex communities of mixed interactions and for structured communities, which are both expected to be common in nature. Finally, we show that reactivity can be a better predictor of extinction risk than stability, particularly when communities face frequent perturbations, as is increasingly common. Our results suggest that, alongside stability, reactivity is a fundamental measure for assessing ecosystem health.