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Data-driven identification of reliable sensor species to predict regime shifts in ecological networks.

Abstract

Signals of critical slowing down are useful for predicting impending transitions in ecosystems. However, in a system with complex interacting components not all components provide the same quality of information to detect system-wide transitions. Identifying the best indicator species in complex ecosystems is a challenging task when a model of the system is not available. In this paper, we propose a data-driven approach to rank the elements of a spatially distributed ecosystem based on their reliability in providing early-warning signals of critical transitions. The proposed method is rooted in experimental modal analysis techniques traditionally used to identify structural dynamical systems. We show that one could use natural system fluctuations and the system responses to small perturbations to reveal the slowest direction of the system dynamics and identify indicator regions that are best suited for detecting abrupt transitions in a network of interacting components. The approach is applied to several ecosystems to demonstrate how it successfully ranks regions based on their reliability to provide early-warning signals of regime shifts. The significance of identifying the indicator species and the challenges associated with ranking nodes in networks of interacting components are also discussed.

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