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Research article2016Peer reviewedOpen access

Species' traits and food‐web complexity interactively affect a food web's response to press disturbance

Wootton, K. L.; Stouffer, D. B.


Given current levels of biodiversity loss and environmental change, studies of how food webs respond to disturbance should broaden their focus beyond short-term disturbances to explore the effects of long-term, "press" disturbances. Press disturbances often disproportionately impact one or a few species, but these impacts invariably propagate to the remaining species in the food web. Additionally, the way species interact with each other within the food web influences the impact they have on the rest of the food web if it is disturbed. Here, we investigate the effect of species-level press disturbances in a large set of model food webs. We simulated disturbances as a reduction in growth rate of a single species within the food web, which is analogous to a targeted disturbance such as selective fishing. In these simulations, we were particularly interested in the resistance of the food web-the magnitude of disturbance it could tolerate before any species went extinct. We found that more highly connected and biodiverse food webs had lower resistance and were more likely to lose species at a low level of disturbance than sparsely connected food webs with few species. Food-web complexity also influenced which species were likely to go extinct due to the disturbance. At low species richness and/or low connectance, food webs could tolerate a large disturbance, and it was usually the focal species which went extinct. In contrast, webs were less stable at higher levels of complexity and a small disturbance rapidly propagated and caused the extinction of a non-focal species. Lastly, the disturbed species' traits were also important: Disturbance of a species with few interactions usually resulted in its own extinction, while disturbance of a species with many interactions more often caused the extinction of the disturbed species' predator(s). Likewise, the trophic level of the disturbed species influenced which species went extinct, although this was modulated by the complexity of the food web. Overall, our study indicates that both the traits of disturbed species and the complexity of the food web need to be considered in attempts to predict or manage the ecological impact of press disturbances.


degree; extinction; resistance; stability; trophic level

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2016, Volume: 7, number: 11, article number: e01518

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG14 Life below water
    SDG15 Life on land

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