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Artificial Life

Spring 2012, Vol. 18, No. 2, Pages 199-222
(doi: 10.1162/artl_a_00059)
© 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Emergent Diversity in an Open-Ended Evolving Virtual Community
Article PDF (683.67 KB)

Understanding the dynamics of biodiversity has become an important line of research in theoretical ecology and, in particular, conservation biology. However, studying the evolution of ecological communities under traditional modeling approaches based on differential calculus requires species' characteristics to be predefined, which limits the generality of the results. An alternative but less standardized methodology relies on intensive computer simulation of evolving communities made of simple, explicitly described individuals. We study here the formation, evolution, and diversity dynamics of a community of virtual plants with a novel individual-centered model involving three different scales: the genetic, the developmental, and the physiological scales. It constitutes an original attempt at combining development, evolution, and population dynamics (based on multi-agent interactions) into one comprehensive, yet simple model. In this world, we observe that our simulated plants evolve increasingly elaborate canopies, which are capable of intercepting ever greater amounts of light. Generated morphologies vary from the simplest one-branch structure of promoter plants to a complex arborization of several hundred thousand branches in highly evolved variants. On the population scale, the heterogeneous spatial structuration of the plant community at each generation depends solely on the evolution of its component plants. Using this virtual data, the morphologies and the dynamics of diversity production were analyzed by various statistical methods, based on genotypic and phenotypic distance metrics. The results demonstrate that diversity can spontaneously emerge in a community of mutually interacting individuals under the influence of specific environmental conditions.