Spatial Self-Organization of Ecosystems: Integrating Multiple Mechanisms of Regular-Pattern Formation

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68 Scopus citations


Large-scale regular vegetation patterns are common in nature, but their causes are disputed. Whereas recent theory focuses on scale-dependent feedbacks as a potentially universal mechanism, earlier studies suggest that many regular spatial patterns result from territorial interference competition between colonies of social-insect ecosystem engineers, leading to hexagonally overdispersed nest sites and associated vegetation. Evidence for this latter mechanism is scattered throughout decades of disparate literature and lacks a unified conceptual framework, fueling skepticism about its generality in debates over the origins of patterned landscapes. We review these mechanisms and debates, finding evidence that spotted and gapped vegetation patterns generated by ants, termites, and other subterranean animals are globally widespread, locally important for ecosystem functioning, and consistent with models of intraspecific territoriality. Because these and other mechanisms of regular-pattern formation are not mutually exclusive and can coexist and interact at different scales, the prevailing theoretical outlook on spatial self-organization in ecology must expand to incorporate the dynamic interplay of multiple processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-377
Number of pages19
JournalAnnual Review of Entomology
StatePublished - Jan 31 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Critical transitions and catastrophic shifts
  • Emergent properties
  • Fairy circles
  • Heuweltjies
  • Mima mounds
  • Termite mounds


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