Fixation properties of rock-paper-scissors games in fluctuating populations

Robert West, Mauro Mobilia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Rock-paper-scissors games metaphorically model cyclic dominance in ecology and microbiology. In a static environment, these models are characterized by fixation probabilities obeying two different “laws” in large and small well-mixed populations. Here, we investigate the evolution of these three-species models subject to a randomly switching carrying capacity modeling the endless change between states of resources scarcity and abundance. Focusing mainly on the zero-sum rock-paper-scissors game, equivalent to the cyclic Lotka–Volterra model, we study how the coupling of demographic and environmental noise influences the fixation properties. More specifically, we investigate which species is the most likely to prevail in a population of fluctuating size and how the outcome depends on the environmental variability. We show that demographic noise coupled with environmental randomness “levels the field” of cyclic competition by balancing the effect of selection. In particular, we show that fast switching effectively reduces the selection intensity proportionally to the variance of the carrying capacity. We determine the conditions under which new fixation scenarios arise, where the most likely species to prevail changes with the rate of switching and the variance of the carrying capacity. Random switching has a limited effect on the mean fixation time that scales linearly with the average population size. Hence, environmental randomness makes the cyclic competition more egalitarian, but does not prolong the species coexistence. We also show how the fixation probabilities of close-to-zero-sum rock-paper-scissors games can be obtained from those of the zero-sum model by rescaling the selection intensity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110135
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
StatePublished - 21 Apr 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019


  • Ecology and evolution
  • Fluctuations
  • Population dynamics
  • Rock-Paper-Scissors
  • Stochastic processes


Dive into the research topics of 'Fixation properties of rock-paper-scissors games in fluctuating populations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this