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
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