Chin J Plan Ecolo ›› 2015, Vol. 39 ›› Issue (9): 932-940.doi: 10.17521/cjpe.2015.0090

• Orginal Article • Previous Articles    

Ecological thresholds: Concept, Methods and research outlooks

TANG Hai-Ping*(), CHEN Jiao, XUE Hai-Li   

  1. State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes & Resource Ecology, Beijing Normal University, College of Resources Science & Technology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • Received:2015-02-03 Accepted:2015-07-23 Online:2015-09-23 Published:2015-09-03
  • Contact: Hai-Ping TANG
  • About author:

    # Co-first authors


The concept of ecological thresholds was raised in the 1970s. However, it was subsequently given different definitions and interpretations depending on research fields or disciplines. For most scientists, ecological thresholds refer to the points or zones that link abrupt changes between alternative stable states of an ecosystem. The measurement and quantification of ecological thresholds have great theoretical and practical significance in ecological research for clarifying the structure and function of ecosystems, for planning sustainable development modes, and for delimiting ecological red lines in managing the ecosystems of a region. By reviewing the existing concepts and classifications of ecological thresholds, we propose a new concept and definition at two different levels: the ecological threshold points, i.e. the turning points of quantitative changes to qualitative changes, which can be considered as ecological red lines; the ecological threshold zones, i.e. the regime shifts of the quantitative changes among different stable states, which can be considered as the yellow and/or orange warning boundaries of the gradual ecological changes. The yellow thresholds mean that an ecosystem can return to a stable state by its self-adjustment, the orange thresholds indicate that the ecosystem will stay in the equilibrium state after interference factors being removed, whereas the red thresholds, as the critical threshold points, indicate that the ecosystem will undergo irreversible degradation or even collapse beyond those points. We also summarizes two types of popular Methods in determining ecological thresholds: statistical analysis and modeling based on data of field observations. The applications of ecological thresholds in ecosystem service, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management research are also reviewed. Future research on ecological thresholds should focus on the following aspects: (1) methodological development for measurement and quantification of ecological thresholds; (2) emphasizing the scaling effect of ecological thresholds and establishment of national-scale observation system and network; and (3) implementation of ecological thresholds as early warning tools in ecosystem management and delimiting ecological red lines.

Key words: ecological thresholds, regime shifts, resilience, ecological management, ecosystem service, ecological red line

Fig. 1

Literature on ecological thresholds published during 1973.1-2015.6 (Resource: Web of Science). Important literature are those with citation frequency of more than 30 times."

Table 1

The concepts of ecological thresholds"

概念 Concept 文献 Reference
The breakpoints between alternative stable states
May, 1977
阈值是两个不同的生态状态之间的时空边界; 牧区管理者没有实质干预的在实践时间尺度上不可逆的初始跨越边界
The boundaries in space and time between two different ecological states, initial shift across the boundary is not reversible on a practical time scale without substantial intervention by the range manager
Friedel, 1991
生态阈值是生态的不连续性, 暗示系统从一个稳态跃入另一个稳态时独立变量的关键值
The critical values of the independent variable around which the system flips from one stable state to another.
Muradian, 2001
The zones at which small changes in environmental conditions produce substantial improvements
Bestelmeyer et al., 2004
A bifurcation point between alternate states which when passed causes a system to “flip” to a different state
Meyers & Walker, 2003
生态阈值代表了生态过程或参数发生突变的一个点, 此突变点响应于一个驱动力的相对较小的变化
The point at which an ecological process or parameter changes abruptly in response to relatively small changes in a driving force
Larsen & Alp, 2015

Table 2

Several terms related to ecological thresholds"

术语 Term 定义 Definition 文献 Reference
系统持久性的度量, 以及吸纳变化和干扰后维持同样的种群或状态变量之间关系的能力;
A measure of the persistence of system and their ability to absorb change and disturbance and to still maintain the same relationship between populations or state variables
Holling, 1973
Non-linear responses
Ecosystem reflects different types of nonlinearities
Rial et al., 2004
Triggers often initiate changes in the pattern or spatial structure of ecosystem
Bowker et al., 2014
Regime shift
Regime shifts imply shifts in ecosystem services and consequent impacts on human societies
Folke et al., 2004
Tipping points
(1)复杂系统的临界点可能隐含非必要崩溃的风险, 同时也是积极改变的机会
Tipping points in complex systems may imply risks of unwanted collapse, but also opportunities
for positive change
Indicate that thresholds crossing has occurred or is imminent
Scheffer et al., 2012

Bowker et al., 2014
alternative stable states (multiple stable states)
描述这种现象, 即系统能展示从一种稳态到另一种稳态发生的重大变化
describe the phenomenon whereby systems can exhibit a big change from one kind of regime to another
Walker & Meyers, 2004
transition point to alternative stable states
May, 1977
Identifying ecological thresholds and describing processes of transition to alternative stable states once these breakpoints or discontinuities
Muradian, 2001
[1] Armitage D, Béné C, Charles AT, Johnson D, Allison EH (2012). The interplay of well-being and resilience in applying a social-ecological perspective.Ecology and Society, 17, 15.
[2] Bai YF, Wu JG, Clark CM, Naeem S, Pan QM, Huang JH, Zhang LX, Han XG (2010). Tradeoffs and thresholds in the effects of nitrogen addition on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning: Evidence from Inner Mongolia grasslands.Global Change Biology, 16, 358-372.
[3] Banks-Leite C, Pardini R, Tambosi LR, Pearse WD, Bueno AA, Bruscagin RT, Condez TH, Dixo M, Igari AT, Martensen AC, Metzger JP (2014). Using ecological thresholds to evaluate the costs and benefits of set-asides in a biodiversity hotspot.Science, 345, 1041-1045.
[4] Barney GO (2002). The Global 2000 Report to the President and the Threshold 21 model: Influences of Dana meadows and system dynamics.System Dynamics Review, 18, 123-136.
[5] Bestelmeyer BT (2006). Threshold concepts and their use in rangeland management and restoration: The good, the bad, and the insidious.Restoration Ecology, 14, 325-329.
[6] Bestelmeyer BT, Herrick JE, Brown JR, Trujillo DA, Havstad KM (2004). Land management in the American southwest: A state-and-transition approach to ecosystem complexity.Environmental Management, 34, 38-51.
[7] Borenstein M, Hedges LV, Higgins JPT, Rothstein HR (2011). Introduction to Meta-Analysis. 2nd edn. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
[8] Bowker MA, Miller ME, Garman SL, Belote T (2014). Applying threshold concepts to conservation management of dryland ecosystems: Case studies on the Colorado Plateau. In: Guntenspergen GR ed. Application of Threshold Concepts in Natural Resource Decision Making. Springer, New York. 101-130.
[9] Briske DD, Fuhlendorf SD, Smeins FE (2005). State-and- transition models, thresholds, and rangeland health: A synthesis of ecological concepts and perspectives.Rangeland Ecology & Management, 58, 1-10.
[10] Cramer W, Bondeau A, Woodward FI, Prentice IC, Betts RA, Brovkin V, Cox PM, Fisher V, Foley JA, Friend AD, Kucharik C, Lomas MR, Ramankutty N, Sitch S, Smith B, White A, Young-Molling C (2001). Global response of terrestrial ecosystem structure and function to CO2 and climate change: Results from six dynamic global vegetation models.Global Change Biology, 7, 357-373.
[11] Cramer W, Kicklighter DW, Bondeau A, Moore B III, Churkina G, Nemry B, Ruimy A, Schloss AL, The Participants of the Potsdam NPP Model Intercomparison (1999). Comparing global models of terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP): Overview and key results.Global Change Biology, 5, 1-15.
[12] DeAngelis DL, Waterhouse JC (1987). Equilibrium and nonequilibrium concepts in ecological models.Ecological Monographs, 57, 1-21.
[13] Ficetola GF, Denoël M (2009). Ecological thresholds: An assessment of Methods to identify abrupt changes in species-habitat relationships.Ecography, 32, 1075-1084.
[14] Folke C, Carpenter S, Walker B, Scheffer M, Elmqvist T, Gunderson L, Holling CS (2004). Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management.Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 35, 557-581.
[15] Friedel MH (1991). Range condition assessment and the concept of thresholds: A viewpoint.Journal of Range Management, 44, 422-426.
[16] Fu BJ, Liu Y (2014). Global ecosystem observation and research programs: Evolution and insights for future development.Progress in Geography, 33, 893-902.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[傅伯杰, 刘宇 (2014). 国际生态系统观测研究计划及启示. 地理科学进展, 33, 893-902.]
[17] Fu BJ, Zhang LW (2014). Land-use change and ecosystem services: Concepts, Methods and progress.Progress in Geography, 33, 441-446.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[傅伯杰, 张立伟. (2014). 土地利用变化与生态系统服务: 概念、方法与进展. 地理科学进展, 33, 441-446.]
[18] Future Earth (2013). Future Earth initial design: Report of the transition team. Paris, FRA: International Council for Science (ICSU). . Cited: 2014-12-26.
[19] Gao Y, Zhu XJ, Yu GR, He NP, Wang QF, Tian J (2014). Water use efficiency threshold for terrestrial ecosystem carbon sequestration in China under afforestation. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 195-196, 32-37.
[20] Groffman PM, Baron JS, Blett T, Gold AJ, Goodman I, Gunderson LH, Levinson BM, Palmer MA, Paerl HW, Peterson GD, Poff NL, Rejeski DW, Reynolds JF, Turner MG, Weathers KC, Wiens J (2006). Ecological thresholds: The key to successful environmental management or an important concept with no practical application.Ecosystems, 9, 1-13.
[21] Holling CS (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1-23.
[22] Huggett AJ (2005). The concept and utility of “ecological thresholds” in biodiversity conservation.Biological Conservation, 124, 301-310.
[23] Kates RW, Clark WC, Corell R, Hall JM, Jaeger CC, Lowe I, McCarthy JJ, Schellnhuber HJ, Bolin B, Dickson NM, Faucheux S, Gallopin GC, Grübler A, Huntley B, Jäger J, Jodha NS, Kasperson RE, Mabogunje A, Matson P, Mooney H, Moore B III, O’Riordan T, Svedin U (2001). Environment and development: Sustainability science.Science, 292, 641-642.
[24] Larsen S, Alp M (2015). Ecological thresholds and riparian wetlands: An overview for environmental managers.Limnology, 16, 1-9.
[25] Laycock WA (1991). Stable states and thresholds of range condition on north American rangelands: A viewpoint.Journal of Range Management, 44, 427-433.
[26] Li H, Cai YL (2010). The threshold of eco-security based on system dynamics and application: A case study of Chongming Island.Acta Ecologica Sinica, 30, 3654-3664.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[李华, 蔡永立 (2010). 基于SD的生态安全指标阈值的确定及应用——以上海崇明岛为例. 生态学报, 30, 3654-3664.]
[27] Li XL, Perry GLW, Brierley G, Sun HQ, Li CH, Lu GX (2014). Quantitative assessment of degradation classifications for degraded alpine meadows (Heitutan), Sanjiangyuan, Western China.Land Degradation & Development, 25, 417-427.
[28] Lindenmayer DB, Luck G (2005). Synthesis: Thresholds in conservation and management.Biological Conservation, 124, 351-354.
[29] Mace G (2013). Global change: Ecology must evolve.Nature, 503, 191-192.
[30] Martin J, Runge MC, Nichols JD, Lubow BC, Kendall WL (2009). Structured decision making as a conceptual framework to identify thresholds for conservation and management.Ecological Applications, 19, 1079-1090.
[31] May RM (1973). Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. Princeton University Press, Princeton , USA.
[32] May RM (1977). Thresholds and breakpoints in ecosystems with a multiplicity of stable states.Nature, 269, 471-477.
[33] Meyers J, Walker BH (2003). Thresholds and alternate states in ecological and social-ecological systems: Thresholds database. Resilience Alliance. . Cited: 2014-12-26.
[34] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. 2nd edn. Island Press, Washington, DC.
[35] Muradian R (2001). Ecological thresholds: A survey.Ecological Economics, 38, 7-24.
[36] Perrings C, Walker B (1997). Biodiversity, resilience and the control of ecological-economic systems: The case of fire-driven rangelands.Ecological Economics, 22, 73-83.
[37] Qian SS (2014). Ecological threshold and environmental management: A note on statistical Methods for detecting thresholds.Ecological Indicators, 38, 192-197.
[38] Qian SS, Cuffney TF (2012). To threshold or not to threshold? That’s the question.Ecological Indicators, 15, 1-9.
[39] Rial JA, Pielke RA, Beniston M, Claussen M, Canadell J, Cox P, Held H, de Noblet-Ducoudré N, Prinn R, Reynolds JF, Salas JD (2004). Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the Earth’s climate system.Climatic Change, 65, 11-38.
[40] Ruppert JC, Holm A, Miehe S, Muldavin E, Snyman HA, Wesche K, Linstadter A (2012). Meta-analysis of ANPP and rain-use efficiency confirms indicative value for degradation and supports non-linear response along precipitation gradients in drylands.Journal of Vegetation Science, 23, 1035-1050.
[41] Sasaki T, Okayasu T, Jamsran U, Takeuchi K (2008). Threshold changes in vegetation along a grazing gradient in Mongolian rangelands.Journal of Ecology, 96, 145-154.
[42] Scheffer M, Bascompte J, Brock WA, Brovkin V, Carpenter SR, Dakos V, Held H, van Nes EH, Rietkerk M, Sugihara G (2009). Early-warning signals for critical transitions.Nature, 461, 53-59.
[43] Scheffer M, Carpenter SR, Lenton TM, Bascompte J, Brock W, Dakos V, van de Koppel J, van de Leemput IA, Levin SA, van Nes EH, Pascual M, Vandermeer J (2012). Anticipating critical transitions.Science, 338, 344-348.
[44] Smith AJ, Tran CP (2010). A weight-of-evidence approach to define nutrient criteria protective of aquatic life in large rivers.Journal of the North American Benthological Society, 29, 875-891.
[45] Suding KN, Gross KL, Houseman GR (2004). Alternative states and positive feedbacks in restoration ecology.Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19, 46-53.
[46] Suding KN, Hobbs RJ (2009). Threshold models in restoration and conservation: A developing framework.Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 271-279.
[47] Swift TL, Hannon SJ (2010). Critical thresholds associated with habitat loss: A review of the concepts, evidence, and applications.Biological Reviews, 85, 35-53.
[48] Toms JD, Lesperance ML (2003). Piecewise regression: A tool for identifying ecological thresholds.Ecology, 84, 2034-2041.
[49] Twidwell D, Fuhlendorf SD, Taylor CA, Rogers WE (2013). Refining thresholds in coupled fire-vegetation models to improve management of encroaching woody plants in grasslands.Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 603-613.
[50] Walker B, Meyers JA (2004). Thresholds in ecological and social-ecological systems: A developing database.Ecology and Society, 9, 3.
[51] Wang C, Wang X, Liu D, Wu H, Lü X, Fang Y, Cheng W, Luo W, Jiang P, Shi J, Yin H, Zhou J, Han X, Bai E (2014). Aridity threshold in controlling ecosystem nitrogen cycling in arid and semi-arid grasslands.Nature Communications, 5, 4799.
[52] Wang YH, Zhou GS, Jia BR (2008). Modeling SOC and NPP responses of meadow steppe to different grazing intensities in northeast China.Ecological Modelling, 217, 72-78.
[53] Wu DH, Yu HY, Wu HY, Zhou B, Wang BX (2010). Estimation of river nutrients thresholds based on benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages: A case study in the upper reaches of Xitiao Stream in Zhejiang, China.Chinese Journal of Applied Ecology, 21, 483-488.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[吴东浩, 于海燕, 吴海燕, 周斌, 王备新 (2010). 基于大型底栖无脊椎动物确定河流营养盐浓度阈值——以西苕溪上游流域为例. 应用生态学报, 21, 483-488.]
[54] Zhang MJ, Guan DJ, Su WC (2015). Scenarios simulation and indices thresholds determination of ecological security in three gorges reservoir based on system dynamics.Acta Ecologica Sinica, 35, 4880-4890.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[张梦婕, 官冬杰, 苏维词 (2015). 基于系统动力学的重庆三峡库区生态安全情景模拟及指标阈值确定. 生态学报, 35, 4880-4890.]
[55] Zhang YF, Ren ZY (2006). Discussion of the ways to quantificational evaluation and threshold value of regional ecological security.Journal of Arid Land Resources and Environment, 20(2), 11-16.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[张艳芳, 任志远 (2006). 区域生态安全定量评价与阈值确定的方法探讨. 干旱区资源与环境, 20(2), 11-16.]
[56] Zhao HX, Wu SH, Jiang LG (2007). Review on recent advances in ecological threshold research.Acta Ecologica Sinica, 27, 338-345.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[赵慧霞, 吴绍洪, 姜鲁光 (2007). 生态阈值研究进展. 生态学报, 27, 338-345.]
[57] Zhao YL, Tang HP, Chen H, Qin XY, Li XY (2004). Connotation and application of ecosystem management.Geography and Geo-Information Science, 20(6), 94-98.(in Chinese with English abstract)
[赵云龙, 唐海萍, 陈海, 秦向阳, 李新宇 (2004). 生态系统管理的内涵与应用. 地理与地理信息科学, 20(6), 94-98.]
[1] Sun Xiaoping,Li Shuang,Yu Jianping,Fang Yanjun,Zhang Yinlong,Cao Mingchang. Evaluation of ecosystem service value based on land use scenarios: A case study of Qianjiangyuan National Park pilot [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2019, 27(1): 51-63.
[2] Richard Corlett. Biodiversity and ecosystem services: Towards ecological security in tropical and subtropical East Asia [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2018, 26(7): 766-774.
[3] Mei Zhang,Mashui Lin,Xiuxiu Cao,Shumin Zhao,Daqing Jiang,Bingxuan Wang,Shiying Wang,Yandi Fan,Ming Guo,Haiping Lin. Difference in pH value and nutrient and bacterial diversity in the Carya cathayensis forest soil under different management models [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2018, 26(6): 611-619.
[4] Yu Zhang, Zhenggao Xiao, Linhui Jiang, Lei Qian, Xiaoyun Chen, Fajun Chen, Feng Hu, Manqiang Liu. Nitrogen levels modify earthworm-mediated tomato growth and resistance to pests [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2018, 26(12): 1296-1307.
[5] Boya Zhang,Yuxue Pan,Jing Xu,Yu Tian. IPBES thematic assessment on land degradation and restoration and its potential impact [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2018, 26(11): 1243-1248.
[6] Yuxue Pan,Yu Tian,Jing Xu,Boya Zhang,Junsheng Li. Methodological assessment on scenarios and models of biodiversity and ecosystem services and impacts on China within the IPBES framework [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2018, 26(1): 89-95.
[7] Leshan Du,Junsheng Li,Gaohui Liu,Fengchun Zhang,Jing Xu,Lile Hu. Progress in the researches on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2016, 24(6): 686-693.
[8] Cunzi Lan,Yu Tian,Jing Xu,Junsheng Li. Conceptual framework and operational model of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2015, 23(5): 681-688.
[9] Yu Tian,Junsheng Li,Cunzi Lan,Xiushan Li. Interpretation of the work programme of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for the period 2014-2018 [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2015, 23(4): 543-549.
[10] Ying Liu,Yueyu Zou,Liucai Zhu,Weiling Wu,Pei Li. Major policies and measures on biodiversity adaptation to climate change: international experience and enlightenment [J]. Biodiv Sci, 2014, 22(3): 407-413.
[11] BAI Yong-Fei, HUANG Jian-Hui, ZHENG Shu-Xia, PAN Qing-Min, ZHANG Li-Xia, ZHOU Hua-Kun, XU Hai-Liang, LI Yu-Lin, and MA Jian. Drivers and regulating mechanisms of grassland and desert ecosystem services [J]. Chin J Plan Ecolo, 2014, 38(2): 93-102.
[12] SUN Yun, YU De-Yong, LIU Yu-Peng, and HAO Rui-Fang. Review on detection of critical transition in ecosystems [J]. Chin J Plan Ecolo, 2013, 37(11): 1059-1070.
[13] XIAO Yu, XIE Gao-Di, AN Kai, and LU Chun-Xia. A research framework of ecosystem services based on functional traits [J]. Chin J Plan Ecolo, 2012, 36(4): 353-362.
Full text



[1] XIAO Qun-Ying, YIN Chun-Ying, PU Xiao-Zhen, QIAO Ming-Feng, and LIU Qing. Ecophysiological characteristics of leaves and fine roots in dominant tree species in a subalpine coniferous forest of western Sichuan during seasonal frozen soil period[J]. Chin J Plan Ecolo, 2014, 38(4): 343 -354 .
[2] . [J]. Chin Bull Bot, 1998, 15(专辑): 35 -38 .
[3] TANG Zhi-Yao, FANG Jing-Yun, ZHANG Ling. Patterns of woody plant species diversity along environmental gradients on Mt. Taibai, Qinling Mountains[J]. Biodiv Sci, 2004, 12(1): 115 -122 .
[4] Ying Tsün-Shen. On Dysosma Woodson and Sinopodophyllum Ying, gen. nov. of the Berberidaceae[J]. J Syst Evol, 1979, 17(1): 15 -23 .
[5] CHEN Sing-Chi ,LI Henh. Arisaema hippocaudatum,A New Species of Araceae from Central Guangxi,China [J]. Plant Diversity, 2002, 24(05): 1 -3 .
[6] Wu Jian-feng. Lichen Ptant in Langskan Area Nantong[J]. Chin Bull Bot, 1993, 10(01): 62 .
[7] ZHOU Song-Dong, HE Xing-Jin*, YU Yan, XU Jie-Mei. Karyotype studies on twenty-one populations of eight species in Allium section Rhiziridium[J]. J Syst Evol, 2007, 45(2): 207 -216 .
[8] Jun WEN, Qiu-Yun (Jenny) XIANG, Hong QIAN, Jianhua LI, Xiao-Quan WANG, Stefanie M. ICKERT-BOND. Intercontinental and intracontinental biogeography—patterns and methods[J]. J Syst Evol, 2009, 47(5): 327 -330 .
[10] Volker KNOOP. Plant mitochondrial genome peculiarities evolving in the earliest vascular plant lineages[J]. J Syst Evol, 2013, 51(1): 1 -12 .