Simple models for complex systems: Exploiting the relationship between local and global densities

Mercedes Pascual, Manojit Roy, Karina Laneri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Simple temporal models that ignore the spatial nature of interactions and track only changes in mean quantities, such as global densities, are typically used under the unrealistic assumption that individuals are well mixed. These so-called mean-field models are often considered overly simplified, given the ample evidence for distributed interactions and spatial heterogeneity over broad ranges of scales. Here, we present one reason why such simple population models may work even when mass-action assumptions do not hold: spatial structure is present but it relates to global densities in a special way. With an individual-based predator-prey model that is spatial and stochastic, and whose mean-field counterpart is the classic Lotka-Volterra model, we show that the global densities and densities of pairs (or spatial covariances) establish a bi-power law at the stationary state and also in their transient approach to this state. This relationship implies that the dynamics of global densities can be written simply as a function of those densities alone without invoking pairs (or higher order moments). The exponents of the bi-power law for the predation rate exhibit a remarkable robustness to changes in model parameters. Evidence is presented for a connection of our findings to the existence of a critical phase transition in the dynamics of the spatial system. We discuss the application of similar modified mean-field equations to other ecological systems for which similar transitions have been described, both in models and empirical data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-222
Number of pages12
JournalTheoretical Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Criticality
  • From individuals to populations
  • Implicit space in ecological models
  • Modified mean-field equations
  • Moment closure
  • Scaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


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