In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Patch Dynamics

  • Introduction

Ecology Patch Dynamics
Lindsey Gillson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0008


Patch dynamics is the study of spatial patterns in landscapes and the ecological and environmental processes that generate these patterns, plus the internal dynamics of how patches change over time. “Patches” are spatial units differing from their neighbors. They are not necessarily internally homogeneous, but may be further decomposable to smaller spatial scales. For example, a forest ecosystem is composed of stands of trees, but each stand is composed of individual trees. By studying the dynamics of patches over space and time, ecologists have sought to address one of the fundamental matters in ecology—understanding the linkages between pattern, process, and scale. This theme underpins landscape ecology, disturbance ecology, and the spatial aspects of population ecology, which is the basis for metapopulation theory and metacommunity theory. All of these branches of ecology are concerned with flux/nonequilibrium: dynamic, heterogeneous systems, may appear stable at some spatial and temporal scales and stable at others. The persistence of patch dynamic landscapes despite their dynamism led to the concept of the shifting mosaic steady state. Pursuing the question of how to bridge the gaps between processes at different spatial scales led to the amalgam of patch dynamics and hierarchy theory. Covering the dimensions of both space and time, patch dynamics has been of fundamental importance in biodiversity conservation, and it provides a spatial and temporal basis for natural resource management and managing and conserving complex systems. Patch dynamics intersects with numerous other important concepts in ecology, including the island theory of biogeography, Metapopulation Theory, succession, and disturbance ecology.

Foundational Works

The history of patch dynamics can be divided into two major phases, the first covering the period from 1930 until the late 1970s, when ideas of spatial change and “patchiness” (heterogeneity) were explored and terminology defined. During this period the concept was largely applied to marine ecosystems, particularly rocky shores and forests, though the seminal paper Watt 1947 (cited under Early Works), also applied the concept of patch dynamics to various other temperate ecosystems and hinted at its relevance to the tropics. After 1980, as landscape ecology, spatial ecology, and issues of scaling became major topics of research, the concept of patch dynamics matured and was applied to more and more ecosystems.

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