Trophic redundancy reduces vulnerability to extinction cascades.
ABSTRACT: Current species extinction rates are at unprecedentedly high levels. While human activities can be the direct cause of some extinctions, it is becoming increasingly clear that species extinctions themselves can be the cause of further extinctions, since species affect each other through the network of ecological interactions among them. There is concern that the simplification of ecosystems, due to the loss of species and ecological interactions, increases their vulnerability to such secondary extinctions. It is predicted that more complex food webs will be less vulnerable to secondary extinctions due to greater trophic redundancy that can buffer against the effects of species loss. Here, we demonstrate in a field experiment with replicated plant-insect communities, that the probability of secondary extinctions is indeed smaller in food webs that include trophic redundancy. Harvesting one species of parasitoid wasp led to secondary extinctions of other, indirectly linked, species at the same trophic level. This effect was markedly stronger in simple communities than for the same species within a more complex food web. We show that this is due to functional redundancy in the more complex food webs and confirm this mechanism with a food web simulation model by highlighting the importance of the presence and strength of trophic links providing redundancy to those links that were lost. Our results demonstrate that biodiversity loss, leading to a reduction in redundant interactions, can increase the vulnerability of ecosystems to secondary extinctions, which, when they occur, can then lead to further simplification and run-away extinction cascades.
Project description:Antarctica is seriously affected by climate change, particularly at the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) where a rapid regional warming is observed. Potter Cove is a WAP fjord at Shetland Islands that constitutes a biodiversity hotspot where over the last years, Potter Cove annual air temperatures averages increased by 0.66 °C, coastal glaciers declined, and suspended particulate matter increased due to ice melting. Macroalgae are the main energy source for all consumers and detritivores of Potter Cove. Some effects of climate change favor pioneer macroalgae species that exploit new ice-free areas and can also decline rates of photosynthesis and intensify competition between species due to the increase of suspended particulate matter. In this study, we evaluated possible consequences of climate change at Potter Cove food web by simulating the extinction of macroalgae and detritus using a topological approach with thresholds of extinction. Thresholds represent the minimum number of incoming links necessary for species' survival. When we simulated the extinctions of macroalgae species at random, a threshold of extinction beyond 50% was necessary to obtain a significant number of secondary extinctions, while with a 75% threshold a real collapse of the food web occurred. Our results indicate that Potter Cove food web is relative robust to macroalgae extinction. This is dramatically different from what has been found in other food webs, where the reduction of 10% in prey intake caused a disproportionate increase of secondary extinctions. Robustness of the Potter Cove food web was mediated by omnivory and redundancy, which had an important relevance in this food web. When we eliminated larger-biomass species more secondary extinctions occurred, a similar response was observed when more connected species were deleted, yet there was no correlation between species of larger-biomass and high-degree. This similarity could be explained because both criteria involved key species that produced an emerging effect on the food web. In this way, large-biomass and high-degree species could be acting as source for species with few trophic interactions or low redundancy. Based on this work, we expect the Potter Cove food web to be robust to changes in macroalgae species caused by climate change until a high threshold of stress is reached, and then negative effects are expected to spread through the entire food web leading to its collapse.
Project description:The biodiversity of ecosystems worldwide is changing because of species loss due to human-caused extinctions and species gain through intentional and accidental introductions. Here we show that the combined effect of these two processes is altering the trophic structure of food webs in coastal marine systems. This is because most extinctions ( approximately 70%) occur at high trophic levels (top predators and other carnivores), while most invasions are by species from lower trophic levels (70% macroplanktivores, deposit feeders, and detritivores). These opposing changes thus alter the shape of marine food webs from a trophic pyramid capped by a diverse array of predators and consumers to a shorter, squatter configuration dominated by filter feeders and scavengers. The consequences of the simultaneous loss of diversity at top trophic levels and gain at lower trophic levels is largely unknown. However, current research suggests that a better understanding of how such simultaneous changes in diversity can impact ecosystem function will be required to manage coastal ecosystems and forecast future changes.
Project description:Within food webs, species can be partitioned into groups according to various criteria. Two notions have received particular attention: trophic groups (TGs), which have been used for decades in the ecological literature, and more recently, modules. The relationship between these two group concepts remains unknown in empirical food webs. While recent developments in network theory have led to efficient methods for detecting modules in food webs, the determination of TGs (groups of species that are functionally similar) is largely based on subjective expert knowledge. We develop a novel algorithm for TG detection. We apply this method to empirical food webs and show that aggregation into TGs allows for the simplification of food webs while preserving their information content. Furthermore, we reveal a two-level hierarchical structure where modules partition food webs into large bottom-top trophic pathways, whereas TGs further partition these pathways into groups of species with similar trophic connections. This provides new perspectives for the study of dynamical and functional consequences of food-web structure, bridging topological and dynamical analysis. TGs have a clear ecological meaning and are found to provide a trade-off between network complexity and information loss.
Project description:In ecosystems, a single extinction event can give rise to multiple 'secondary' extinctions. Conservation effort would benefit from tools that help forecast the consequences of species removal. One such tool is the dominator tree, a graph-theoretic algorithm that when applied to food webs unfolds their complex architecture, yielding a simpler topology made of linear pathways that are essential for energy delivery. Each species along these chains is responsible for passing energy to the taxa that follow it and, as such, it is indispensable for their survival. To assess the predictive potential of the dominator tree, we compare its predictions with the effects that followed the collapse of the capelin (Mallotus villosus) in the Barents Sea ecosystem. To this end, we first compiled a food web for this ecosystem, then we built the corresponding dominator tree and, finally, we observed whether model predictions matched the empirical observations. This analysis shows the potential and the drawbacks of the dominator trees as a tool for understanding the causes and consequences of extinctions in food webs.
Project description:Most evidence of climate change impacts on food webs comes from modern studies and little is known about how ancient food webs have responded to climate changes in the past. Here, we integrate fossil evidence from 71 fossil sites, body-size relationships and actualism to reconstruct food webs for six large mammal communities that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula at different times during the Quaternary. We quantify the long-term dynamics of these food webs and study how their structure changed across the Quaternary, a period for which fossil data and climate changes are well known. Extinction, immigration and turnover rates were correlated with climate changes in the last 850 kyr. Yet, we find differences in the dynamics and structural properties of Pleistocene versus Holocene mammal communities that are not associated with glacial-interglacial cycles. Although all Quaternary mammal food webs were highly nested and robust to secondary extinctions, general food web properties changed in the Holocene. These results highlight the ability of communities to re-organize with the arrival of phylogenetically similar species without major structural changes, and the impact of climate change and super-generalist species (humans) on Iberian Holocene mammal communities.
Project description:Widespread overharvesting of top consumers of the world's ecosystems has "skewed" food webs, in terms of biomass and species richness, towards a generally greater domination at lower trophic levels. This skewing is exacerbated in locations where exotic species are predominantly low-trophic level consumers such as benthic macrophytes, detritivores, and filter feeders. However, in some systems where numerous exotic predators have been added, sometimes purposefully as in many freshwater systems, food webs are skewed in the opposite direction toward consumer dominance. Little is known about how such modifications to food web topology, e.g., changes in the ratio of predator to prey species richness, affect ecosystem functioning. We experimentally measured the effects of trophic skew on production in an estuarine food web by manipulating ratios of species richness across three trophic levels in experimental mesocosms. After 24 days, increasing macroalgal richness promoted both plant biomass and grazer abundance, although the positive effect on plant biomass disappeared in the presence of grazers. The strongest trophic cascade on the experimentally stocked macroalgae emerged in communities with a greater ratio of prey to predator richness (bottom-rich food webs), while stronger cascades on the accumulation of naturally colonizing algae (primarily microalgae with some early successional macroalgae that recruited and grew in the mesocosms) generally emerged in communities with greater predator to prey richness (the more top-rich food webs). These results suggest that trophic skewing of species richness and overall changes in food web topology can influence marine community structure and food web dynamics in complex ways, emphasizing the need for multitrophic approaches to understand the consequences of marine extinctions and invasions.
Project description:In this study, we focused on the exceptionally large mammals inhabiting the Americas during the Quaternary period and the paramount role of body size in species ecology. We evaluated two main features of Pleistocene food webs: the relationship between body size and (i) trophic position and (ii) vulnerability to predation. Despite the large range of species sizes, we found a hump-shaped relationship between trophic position and body size. We also found a negative trend in species vulnerability similar to that observed in modern faunas. The largest species lived near the boundary of energetic constraints, such that any shift in resource availability could drive these species to extinction. Our results reinforce several features of megafauna ecology: (i) the negative relationship between trophic position and body size implies that large-sized species were particularly vulnerable to changes in energetic support; (ii) living close to energetic imbalance could favour the incorporation of additional energy sources, for example, a transition from a herbivorous to a scavenging diet in the largest species (e.g. Megatherium) and (iii) the interactions and structure of Quaternary megafauna communities were shaped by similar forces to those shaping modern fauna communities.
Project description:Mesofauna taxa fill key trophic positions in soil food webs, even in terrestrial-marine boundary habitats characterized by frequent natural disturbances. Salt marshes represent such boundary habitats, characterized by frequent inundations increasing from the terrestrial upper to the marine pioneer zone. Despite the high abundance of soil mesofauna in salt marshes and their important function by facilitating energy and carbon flows, the structure, trophic ecology and habitat-related diet shifts of mesofauna species in natural salt marsh habitats is virtually unknown. Therefore, we investigated the effects of natural disturbance (inundation frequency) on community structure, food web complexity and resource use of soil mesofauna using stable isotope analysis (15N, 13C) in three salt marsh zones. In this intertidal habitat, the pioneer zone is exposed to inundations twice a day, but lower and upper salt marshes are less frequently inundated based on shore height. The mesofauna comprised 86 species / taxa dominated by Collembola, Oribatida and Mesostigmata. Shifts in environmental disturbances influenced the structure of food webs, diversity and density declined strongly from the land to the sea pointing to the importance of increasing levels of inundation frequency. Accordingly, the reduced diversity and density was associated by a simplification of the food web in the pioneer zone as compared to the less inundated lower and upper salt marsh with a higher number of trophic levels. Strong variations in ?15N signatures demonstrated that mesofauna species are feeding at multiple trophic levels. Primary decomposers were low and most mesofauna species functioned as secondary decomposers or predators including second order predators or scavengers. The results document that major decomposer taxa, such as Collembola and Oribatida, are more diverse than previously assumed and predominantly dwell on autochthonous resources of the respective salt marsh zone. The results further suggest that Mesostigmata mostly adopt an intraguild predation lifestyle. The high trophic position of a large number of predators suggests that intraguild predation is of significant importance in salt marsh food webs. Presumably, intraguild predation contributes to stabilizing the salt marsh food web against disturbances.
Project description:While natural communities are assembled by both ecological and evolutionary processes, ecological assembly processes have been studied much more and are rarely compared with evolutionary assembly processes. We address these disparities here by comparing community food webs assembled by simulating introductions of species from regional pools of species and from speciation events. Compared to introductions of trophically dissimilar species assumed to be more typical of invasions, introducing species trophically similar to native species assumed to be more typical of sympatric or parapatric speciation events caused fewer extinctions and assembled more empirically realistic networks by introducing more persistent species with higher trophic generality, vulnerability, and enduring similarity to native species. Such events also increased niche overlap and the persistence of both native and introduced species. Contrary to much competition theory, these findings suggest that evolutionary and other processes that more tightly pack ecological niches contribute more to ecosystem structure and function than previously thought.
Project description:A major challenge in ecology is forecasting the effects of species' extinctions, a pressing problem given current human impacts on the planet. Consequences of species losses such as secondary extinctions are difficult to forecast because species are not isolated, but interact instead in a complex network of ecological relationships. Because of their mutual dependence, the loss of a single species can cascade in multiple coextinctions. Here we show that an algorithm adapted from the one Google uses to rank web-pages can order species according to their importance for coextinctions, providing the sequence of losses that results in the fastest collapse of the network. Moreover, we use the algorithm to bridge the gap between qualitative (who eats whom) and quantitative (at what rate) descriptions of food webs. We show that our simple algorithm finds the best possible solution for the problem of assigning importance from the perspective of secondary extinctions in all analyzed networks. Our approach relies on network structure, but applies regardless of the specific dynamical model of species' interactions, because it identifies the subset of coextinctions common to all possible models, those that will happen with certainty given the complete loss of prey of a given predator. Results show that previous measures of importance based on the concept of "hubs" or number of connections, as well as centrality measures, do not identify the most effective extinction sequence. The proposed algorithm provides a basis for further developments in the analysis of extinction risk in ecosystems.