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Reconciling complexity with stability in naturally assembling food webs

An Addendum to this article was published on 05 March 2009


Understanding how complex food webs assemble through time is fundamental both for ecological theory and for the development of sustainable strategies of ecosystem conservation and restoration. The build-up of complexity in communities is theoretically difficult, because in random-pattern models complexity leads to instability1. There is growing evidence, however, that nonrandom patterns in the strengths of the interactions between predators and prey strongly enhance system stability2,3,4. Here we show how such patterns explain stability in naturally assembling communities. We present two series of below-ground food webs along natural productivity gradients in vegetation successions5,6. The complexity of the food webs increased along the gradients. The stability of the food webs was captured by measuring the weight of feedback loops7 of three interacting ‘species’ locked in omnivory. Low predator–prey biomass ratios in these omnivorous loops were shown to have a crucial role in preserving stability as productivity and complexity increased during succession. Our results show the build-up of food-web complexity in natural productivity gradients and pin down the feedback loops that govern the stability of whole webs. They show that it is the heaviest three-link feedback loop in a network of predator–prey effects that limits its stability. Because the weight of these feedback loops is kept relatively low by the biomass build-up in the successional process, complexity does not lead to instability.

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Figure 1: Observed connectedness structures of the below-ground food webs of Schiermonnikoog and Hulshorsterzand, representative of the four successional stages.
Figure 2: Food-web stability related to measures of food-web structure, of Schiermonnikoog and Hulshorsterzand.
Figure 3: Relationship between loop weight and stability for ‘Cohen webs’ compared with observed webs (black circles).
Figure 4: Relationship between predator–prey biomass ratios and stability in the food webs along both successional gradients (Schiermonnikoog and Hulshorsterzand combined).

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We thank E. Biewenga, P. Bolhuis, B. van der Boom, K. Kampen, M. Veninga and W. Willems for assistance in collecting and analysing the soil samples. We thank S. Burgers, J. Krumins and P. Morin for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Anje-Margriet Neutel.

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Supplementary information

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The file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2 (of observed biomass densities and complexity characteristics), additional information on the methods used (determining intraspecific interaction, expressing stability, deriving biomass dependencies, explaining details of calculating s), and Supplementary Figures S1-S4 with Legends containing sensitivity analyses (Figures S1 to S3) and the biomass-complexity relation (Figure S4). (PDF 197 kb)

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Neutel, AM., Heesterbeek, J., van de Koppel, J. et al. Reconciling complexity with stability in naturally assembling food webs. Nature 449, 599–602 (2007).

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