Teaching isoclines in the two-species competitive logistic model

I’ve had a great discussion by email with Crystal Ernst, about the best way to teach isoclines and phase portraits to undergraduates. I had this discussion countless times over the last two years, and I struggled when I had to teach that myself. I ended up finding a little twist on the classical diagrams, and so I decided that it was time to share it.

Isoclines are usually first introduced when discussing the logistic model with competition between two species, or

It’s an important model, as we can use it as a gateway to talk about coexistence, local stability, and ecosystem functioning. It is also a perfect transition between the empirical side of ecology with Gauses’s experiments, and the more theoretical side of it. I love this model, especially for teaching.

There are a number of intersting things to explain to students when introducing this model. First, each species $n$ perceives its environment as a “box” with $K_n$ compartments. Left to their own devices, each “individual” (or units of biomass) will “fill” $\alpha_{nn}$ compartments, which usually equates unity for a single species model. The growth of the population is therefore a quest for free compartments to fill, and when most of the box is filled, the effective growth rate decreases. When all compartments are filled ($N_n = K_n$), then the growth rate is 0, and the population is at equilibrium. Cue a discussion on the mechanisms that would allow us to represent the environment as a box with compartments (space requirements, having enough to eat, foraging area, and whatever else you can think of).

The point with introducing a second species is that there are now two types of organisms to share the same “box”. And individuals from species $p$ are perceived by those of species $n$ as taking up $\alpha_{np}$ compartments. The opposite is true, and we can define values for the intensity of intra and inter specific competition. The question is, then, what are the combinations of values of $\mathbf{\alpha}$ that allows coexistence, competitive exclusion, or make the system sensitive to initial conditions?

It’s at this point that I usually introduce the notion of equilibrium, i.e. a state of the system in which the two populations stop growing. The calculus-based solution is to find values of the population densities that make the two derivatives null at the same time. When you are a facing a class of undergrads that are not especially enamored with mathematics (potentially a large part of the population), this approach is not likely to get them excited. Which is partly why we usually use isoclines and phase portraits to explain how different combinations of intra/inter specific competition strenghts affect the potential for coexistence.

The problem is, explaining how isoclines work is awful. I know many people that are able to predict a lot of things just by drawing a bunch of lines on a whiteboard. Did I say many? Well if the discussions I had with people are to be believe, these are actually the happy few. The rest of us are left scratching our head in front a cryptic diagram that makes absolutly no sense. I blame the difficulty to read isoclines as the single reason for which adaptive dynamics is frwoned upon by many people (that, and the fact that any method involving third order derivatives is rapidly messy).

So here is my solution: use vector fields. With a vector field, it’s virtually impossible to screw up the explanation, because all you have to do is (i) put your finger somewhere on the diagram and (ii) follow the arows until the equilibrium that the system would eventually reach. Want to know how a perturbation affects this equilibrium? Just jiggle your finger a bit, and go back to step (i). Did you ended up at the same point? Congratulations, that’s local stability.

OK, so what’s a vector field? The phase portrait of the system is defined by two axes, one for the density of species 1, the other for the density of species 2. The isoclines are the lines going trough the two equilibria for species 1 ($N_1 = (0; N^\star_1)$), and trough the two equilibria for species 2 ($N_2 = (0; N^\star_2)$). When you are above (axis-wise) your isocline, you converge back to it, and where you are below your isocline, well, the same thing happens but in the other direction. At the intersection of the two isoclines is the two-species equilibrium, whose stability and accessibility tells whether coexistence is possible or not.

The important thing to keep in mind is that both species will push the system in (possibly) different directions at the same time. So there can be some funky behavior happening, and species can cross their isoclines (this happens in the predator-prey Lotka-Volterra model, among many others). So what matters is the combined changed in the system, which we can model through the addition of two vectors in the $N_1,N_2$ plane. The first vector (which describes the amount of change in the vertical direction is $\vec{N_2}$. The norm of this vector is simply $\frac{d}{dt}N_2$. The second vector, in the horizontal direction, is similarly $\vec{N_1}$. The resulting vector describing the overall change in the system is

Because $\vec{N_1}$ and $\vec{N_2}$ are orthogonal (and because of a couple of other assumptions, such as the space defined by the population densities being Euclidean), it’s easy to measure the Euclidean norm of $\vec{S}$, which is to say the total amount of change in the system, as being

At any given coordinate $(N_1, N_2)$, the system will move towards $(N_1 + \dot{N_1}, N_2 + \dot{N_2})$. With both infos in hand, we can do two things. First, we can plot the instantaneous #ate of change of the system (the absolute value of the norm of $\vec{S}$) over space, to see in which combinations of populations densities are trigerring rapid changes. Second, we can plot the direction of change using arrows over the previous graph, to see in which direction the system is moving. The really good thing with this method is that we only have to tell students that we describe the cumulative change of populations on the two axes, and leave aside all of the maths (as straightforward as they may be).

So now, we can produce a graph like the one below:


When the color is close to red, the system is moving extremely fast. When the color is close to yellow, the system is slowing down. Each arrow gives the direction in which the system is changing, so we can see that the outcome of competition in this case will depend on the initial conditions. It’s also easy to start from anywhere on the plan, and follow the direction of the arrows. You can also zoom in, to see how the system behaves when near the equilibrium, and investigate the effects of a small disturbance. In this case, it’s clear that the system will move away from the equilibrium, which is a good way to introduce the notion of local stability (after that, it’s eigenvalues all the way down!).


The same visualization with a stable coexistence is also extremely clear. You can easily see that all of the arrows converge towards the two-species equilibrium, which in that case is stable. I’m not going to show the systematic exclusion scenario, but it’s working in the same way.

The good thing with this method is that (i) it’s easy to explain what isoclines are and how to use them to see how the system will change over time, and (ii) as it’s extremely visual, it does not rely on the students understanding the maths before they understand their ecological meaning. I have no data to back this up, but I think it’s easier to understand the maths once you can see the output in a visual way.

The code I used is available as a gist. It’s not optimized at all but it runs fast enough that optimization is not really an issue. You can modify the params array to fix values of r, K, and the per capita competition rates, and the code will do the rest.

Here we are. This is the way I currently explain isoclines, and the outcome of competition in the two-species logistic growth model (and a bunch of others, actually). It helps me by making it virtually impossible to fail at the explanation, because I can just follow the arrows. And I think it helps the students because (i) it gives a visual explanation of the phenomenon that requires no mathematical understanding, and (ii) it’s an intuitive way to start thinking about all the conclusions we can draw using this model.

Now, if any of you have an alternative method to teach that, I’m very interested. I think that the behavior of this model can be tricky to explain. Yet it touches upon so many core principles in community ecology that it’s super important that we get it right.

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