Time delays modulate the stability of complex ecosystems

Yuguang Yang, Kevin R Foster, Katharine Z Coyte, Aming Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What drives the stability, or instability, of complex ecosystems? This question sits at the heart of community ecology and has motivated a large body of theoretical work exploring how community properties shape ecosystem dynamics. However, the overwhelming majority of current theory assumes that species interactions are instantaneous, meaning that changes in the abundance of one species will lead to immediate changes in the abundances of its partners. In practice, time delays in how species respond to one another are widespread across ecological contexts, yet the impact of these delays on ecosystems remains unclear. Here we derive a new body of theory to comprehensively study the impact of time delays on ecological stability. We find that time delays are important for ecosystem stability. Large delays are typically destabilizing but, surprisingly, short delays can substantially increase community stability. Moreover, in stark contrast to delay-free systems, delays dictate that communities with more abundant species can be less stable than ones with less abundant species. Finally, we show that delays fundamentally shift how species interactions impact ecosystem stability, with communities of mixed interaction types becoming the most stable class of ecosystem. Our work demonstrates that time delays can be critical for the stability of complex ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1610-1619
Number of pages10
JournalNature Ecology & Evolution
Issue number10
Early online date17 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023


  • Ecosystem


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