Phase separation driven by density-dependent movement: a novel mechanism for ecological patterns

  Many ecosystems develop strikingly regular spatial patterns because of small-scale interactions between organisms, a process generally referred to as spatial self-organization. Self-organized spatial patterns are important determinants of the functioning of ecosystems, promoting the growth and survival of the involved organisms, and affecting the capacity of the organisms to cope with changing environmental conditions. The predominant explanation for self-organized pattern formation is spatial heterogeneity in establishment, growth and mortality, resulting from the self-organization processes. A number of recent studies, however, have revealed that movement of organisms can be an important driving process creating extensive spatial patterning in many ecosystems. Here, we review studies that detail movement-based pattern formation in contrasting ecological settings. Our review highlights that a common principle, where movement of organisms is density-dependent, explains observed spatial regular patterns in all of these studies. This principle, well known to physics as the Cahn–Hilliard principle of phase separation, has so-far remained unrecognized as a general mechanism for self-organized complexity in ecology. Using the examples presented in this paper, we explain how this movement principle can be discerned in ecological settings, and clarify how to test this mechanism experimentally. Our study highlights that animal movement, both in isolation and in unison with other processes, is an important mechanism for regular pattern formation in ecosystems.
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