This introductory chapter explains how natural ecosystems can appear to be so persistent and susceptible to catastrophic change, such as the replacement of coral reefs with seaweeds; and the replacement of semi-arid grasslands with shrub forests. Ecologists are interested in these sudden changes since these characteristics are often seen as indicators of an ecosystem with multiple stable states. Moreover, the unpredictable nature of those changes and the inability to reverse it can cause serious management problems. This chapter also defines the persistence and the susceptibility of ecosystem by addressing the questions: how do we know if a sudden shift in species composition is an evidence for multiple stable states? And how do we define terms such as ‘sudden,’ ‘abrupt,’ ‘persistent,’ and ‘irreversible,’ which are so often used to discuss multiple stable states in natural communities?
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