Changes in species composition of communities seem to proceed gradually at first sight, but remarkably rapid shifts are known to occur. Although disrupting disturbances seem an obvious explanation for such shifts, evidence for large disturbances is not always apparent. Here we show that complex communities tend to move through occasional catastrophic shifts in response to gradual environmental change or evolution. This tendency is caused by multiple attractors that may exist in such systems. We show that alternative attractors arise robustly in randomly generated multispecies models, especially if competition is symmetrical and if interspecific competition is allowed to exceed intraspecific competition. Inclusion of predators as a second trophic level did not alter the results greatly, although it reduced the probability of alternative attractors somewhat. These results suggest that alternative attractors may commonly arise from interactions between large numbers of species. Consequently, the response of complex communities to environmental change is expected to be characterized by hysteresis and sudden shifts. Some unexplained regime shifts observed in ecosystems could be related to alternative attractors arising from complex species interactions. Additionally, our results support the idea that ancient mass extinctions may partly be due to an intrinsic loss of stability of species configurations.
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