, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 458–476 | Cite as

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

  • George I. HagstromEmail author
  • Simon A. Levin
20th Anniversary Paper


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.


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



Simon Levin acknowledges funding from the NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity Grant OCE-1046001, NSF Grant GEO-1211972, NSF Grant OCE-1426746, ARO Grant W911NF-11-1-0385, ARO Grant W911NF-14-1-0431 and by the Nordforsk-funded project Green Growth Based on Marine Resource: Ecological and Socio-Economic Constraints (GreenMAR). George Hagstrom acknowledges funding from NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity Grant OCE-1046001, ARO Grant W911NF-14-1-0431, and ARO Grant W911NF-11-1-0385.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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