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Grasshopper Population Ecology: Catastrophe, Criticality, and Critique

Dale R Lockwood, Colorado State University
Jeffrey A Lockwood, University of Wyoming


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Grasshopper population dynamics are an important part of the North American rangeland ecosystem and an important factor in the economies that derive from the rangeland. Outbreak dynamics have plagued management strategies in the rangeland, and attempts to find simple, linear and mechanistic solutions to both understanding and predicting the dynamics have proved fruitless. These efforts to ground theory in a correspondence with the “real” world, including whether the population dynamics are ultimately density dependent or density independent, have generated abundant heat but little light. We suggest that a pragmatic approach, in which theories are taken to be “tools” rather than competing claims of truth, has greater promise to move ecological research in a constructive direction. Two recent non-linear approaches exploiting the tools of complexity science provide insights relevant to explaining and forecasting population dynamics. Observation and data collection were used to structure models derived from catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality. These models indicate that nonlinear processes are important in the dynamics of the outbreaks. And the conceptual structures of these approaches provide clear, albeit constrained or contingent, implications for pest managers.

We show that, although these two frameworks, catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality, are very different, the frequency distributions of time series from both systems result in power law relationships. Further, we show that a simple lattice-based model, similar to SOC but structured on the biology of the grasshoppers gives a spatial time series similar to data over a 50-year span and the frequency distribution is also a power law relationship. This demonstration exemplifies how a “both–and” rather than an “either–or” approach to ecological modeling, in which the useful elements of particular theories or conceptual structures are extracted, may provide a way forward in addressing particularly difficult ecological problems.

Key words

catastrophe theory; complexity science; grasshoppers; models; pest management; population dynamics; rangeland ecosystem; self-organized criticality

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087