Marine Ecosystems as Complex Adaptive Systems: Emergent Patterns, Critical Transitions, and Public Goods

George I. Hagstrom, Simon Asher Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Complex adaptive systems provide a unified framework for explaining ecosystem phenomena. In the past 20 years, complex adaptive systems have been sharpened from an abstract concept into a series of tools that can be used to solve concrete problems. These advances have been led by the development of new techniques for coupling ecological and evolutionary dynamics, for integrating dynamics across multiple scales of organization, and for using data to infer the complex interactions among different components of ecological systems. Focusing on the development and usage of these new methods, we discuss how they have led to an improved understanding of three universal features of complex adaptive systems, emergent patterns; tipping points and critical phenomena; and cooperative behavior. We restrict our attention primarily to marine ecosystems, which provide numerous successful examples of the application of complex adaptive systems. Many of these are currently undergoing dramatic changes due to anthropogenic perturbations, and we take the opportunity to discuss how complex adaptive systems can be used to improve the management of public goods and to better preserve critical ecosystem services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)458-476
Number of pages19
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


  • complex adaptive systems
  • critical transitions
  • emergent patterns
  • evolution of cooperation
  • marine ecosystems
  • public goods
  • theoretical ecology


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