Sharkovskii's theorem

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In mathematics, Sharkovskii's theorem, named after Oleksandr Mikolaiovich Sharkovsky who published it in 1964, is a result about discrete dynamical systems.[1] One of the implications of the theorem is that if a discrete dynamical system on the real line has a periodic point of period 3, then it must have periodic points of every other period.

The theorem[edit]

For some interval I\subset \mathbb{R}, suppose

f : I \to I

is a continuous function. We say that the number x is a periodic point of period m if f m(x) = x (where f m denotes the composition of m copies of f) and having least period m if furthermore f k(x) ≠ x for all 0 < k < m. We are interested in the possible periods of periodic points of f. Consider the following ordering of the positive integers:

3 & 5 & 7 & 9 & 11 & \ldots & (2n+1)\cdot2^{0} & \ldots\\
3\cdot2 & 5\cdot2 & 7\cdot2 & 9\cdot2 & 11\cdot2 & \ldots & (2n+1)\cdot2^{1} & \ldots\\
3\cdot2^{2} & 5\cdot2^{2} & 7\cdot2^{2} & 9\cdot2^{2} & 11\cdot2^{2} & \ldots & (2n+1)\cdot2^{2} & \ldots\\
3\cdot2^{3} & 5\cdot2^{3} & 7\cdot2^{3} & 9\cdot2^{3} & 11\cdot2^{3} & \ldots & (2n+1)\cdot2^{3} & \ldots\\
 & \vdots\\
\ldots & 2^{n} & \ldots & 2^{4} & 2^{3} & 2^{2} & 2 & 1\end{array}

We start, that is, with the odd numbers in increasing order, then 2 times the odds, 4 times the odds, 8 times the odds, etc., and at the end we put the powers of two in decreasing order. Every positive integer appears exactly once somewhere on this list. Note that this ordering is not a well-ordering. Sharkovskii's theorem states that if f has a periodic point of least period m and m precedes n in the above ordering, then f has also a periodic point of least period n.

As a consequence, we see that if f has only finitely many periodic points, then they must all have periods which are powers of two. Furthermore, if there is a periodic point of period three, then there are periodic points of all other periods.

Sharkovskii's theorem does not state that there are stable cycles of those periods, just that there are cycles of those periods. For systems such as the logistic map, the bifurcation diagram shows a range of parameter values for which apparently the only cycle has period 3. In fact, there must be cycles of all periods there, but they are not stable and therefore not visible on the computer generated picture.

The assumption of continuity is important, as the discontinuous function f : x \mapsto (1-x)^{-1}, for which every non-zero value has period 3, would otherwise be a counterexample.


Tien-Yien Li and James A. Yorke showed[2] in 1975 that not only does the existence of a period-3 cycle imply the existence of cycles of all periods, but in addition it implies the existence of an uncountable infinitude of points that never map to any cycle (chaotic points)—a property known as period three implies chaos.

Sharkovskii's theorem does not immediately apply to dynamical systems on other topological spaces. It is easy to find a circle map with periodic points of period 3 only: take a rotation by 120 degrees, for example. But some generalizations are possible, typically involving the mapping class group of the space minus a periodic orbit.


  1. ^ *A.N. Sharkovskii, Co-existence of cycles of a continuous mapping of the line into itself, Ukrainian Math. J., 16:61-71 (1964).
  2. ^ T.Y. Li, and J.A. Yorke, Period Three Implies Chaos, American Mathematical Monthly 82, 985 (1975).

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