Phylogenetic constraints and adaptation explain food-web structure


Food webs are descriptions of who eats whom in an ecosystem. Although extremely complex and variable, their structure possesses basic regularities1,2,3,4,5,6. A fascinating question is to find a simple model capturing the underlying processes behind these repeatable patterns. Until now, two models have been devised for the description of trophic interactions within a natural community7,8. Both are essentially based on the concept of ecological niche, with the consumers organized along a single niche dimension; for example, prey size8,9. Unfortunately, they fail to describe adequately recent and high-quality data. Here, we propose a new model built on the hypothesis that any species' diet is the consequence of phylogenetic constraints and adaptation. Simple rules incorporating both concepts yield food webs whose structure is very close to real data. Consumers are organized in groups forming a nested hierarchy, which better reflects the complexity and multidimensionality of most natural systems.

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Figure 1: Comparison of one simulation of the niche model (a) and of the nested hierarchy model (c), with respect to a real food web (b); Bridge Brook Lake4.
Figure 2: Hypothetical food webs illustrating chordless cycles and intervality, and irreducible gaps.
Figure 3


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We thank J. Bascompte, S. Cousins, S. Hubbell, R. Naisbit and P. Warren for useful comments. This work was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Novartis Foundation, and partly by the National Center of Competence in Research ‘Plant Survival’.

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Correspondence to Louis-Félix Bersier.

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Cattin, M., Bersier, L., Banašek-Richter, C. et al. Phylogenetic constraints and adaptation explain food-web structure. Nature 427, 835–839 (2004).

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