Insights from the study of complex systems for the ecology and evolution of animal populations

David N Fisher* (Corresponding Author), Jonathan N Pruitt

*Corresponding author for this work

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Populations of animals comprise many individuals, interacting in multiple contexts, and displaying heterogeneous behaviors. The interactions among individuals can often create population dynamics that are fundamentally deterministic yet display unpredictable dynamics. Animal populations can, therefore, be thought of as complex systems. Complex systems display properties such as nonlinearity and uncertainty and show emergent properties that cannot be explained by a simple sum of the interacting components. Any system where entities compete, cooperate, or interfere with one another may possess such qualities, making animal populations similar on many levels to complex systems. Some fields are already embracing elements of complexity to help understand the dynamics of animal populations, but a wider application of complexity science in ecology and evolution has not occurred. We review here how approaches from complexity science could be applied to the study of the interactions and behavior of individuals within animal populations and highlight how this way of thinking can enhance our understanding of population dynamics in animals. We focus on 8 key characteristics of complex systems: hierarchy, heterogeneity, self-organization, openness, adaptation, memory, nonlinearity, and uncertainty. For each topic we discuss how concepts from complexity theory are applicable in animal populations and emphasize the unique insights they provide. We finish by outlining outstanding questions or predictions to be evaluated using behavioral and ecological data. Our goal throughout this article is to familiarize animal ecologists with the basics of each of these concepts and highlight the new perspectives that they could bring to variety of subfields.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalCurrent Zoology
Issue number1
Early online date23 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

D.N.F. thanks Jack W. Bradbury and Sandra L. Vehrencamp for writing the article that originally stimulated his thoughts in this area. The authors are also grateful to Simon Denomme-Brown, Gustavo Betini and Elizabeth Hobson for reviewing drafts of this article, and Andrew G. McAdam for allowing D.N.F. to pursue this project despite employing him to study squirrels. Four anonymous reviewers provided useful comments that helped improve the manuscript. We have no conflicting interests.


  • chaos
  • complex system
  • complexity
  • population dynamics
  • social network
  • stochasticity


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