A mathematical biologist’s guide to absolute and convective instability

Jonathan A. Sherratt, Ayawoa S. Dagbovie, Frank M. Hilker

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19 Citations (SciVal)


Mathematical models have been highly successful at reproducing the complex spatiotemporal phenomena seen in many biological systems. However, the ability to numerically simulate such phenomena currently far outstrips detailed mathematical understanding. This paper reviews the theory of absolute and convective instability, which has the potential to redress this inbalance in some cases. In spatiotemporal systems, unstable steady states subdivide into two categories. Those that are absolutely unstable are not relevant in applications except as generators of spatial or spatiotemporal patterns, but convectively unstable steady states can occur as persistent features of solutions. The authors explain the concepts of absolute and convective instability, and also the related concepts of remnant and transient instability. They give examples of their use in explaining qualitative transitions in solution behaviour. They then describe how to distinguish different types of instability, focussing on the relatively new approach of the absolute spectrum. They also discuss the use of the theory for making quantitative predictions on how spatiotemporal solutions change with model parameters. The discussion is illustrated throughout by numerical simulations of a model for river-based predator–prey systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalBulletin of Mathematical Biology
Issue number1
Early online date22 Nov 2013
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015


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