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The multilayer nature of ecological networks

Abstract

Although networks provide a powerful approach to study a large variety of ecological systems, their formulation does not typically account for multiple interaction types, interactions that vary in space and time, and interconnected systems such as networks of networks. The emergent field of ‘multilayer networks’ provides a natural framework for extending analyses of ecological systems to include such multiple layers of complexity, as it specifically allows one to differentiate and model ‘intralayer’ and ‘interlayer’ connectivity. The framework provides a set of concepts and tools that can be adapted and applied to ecology, facilitating research on high-dimensional, heterogeneous systems in nature. Here, we formally define ecological multilayer networks based on a review of previous, related approaches; illustrate their application and potential with analyses of existing data; and discuss limitations, challenges, and future applications. The integration of multilayer network theory into ecology offers largely untapped potential to investigate ecological complexity and provide new theoretical and empirical insights into the architecture and dynamics of ecological systems.

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Figure 1: Multilayer networks in ecology.
Figure 2: Modularity maximization in a diagonally coupled multilayer network.
Figure 3: A toy example of temporal modularity maximization.
Figure 4: Network robustness to species removal in a multilayer network of plant–flower-visitors and plant–leaf-miner parasitoids.

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Acknowledgements

S.P. was supported by a James S. McDonnell foundation postdoctoral fellowship for the study of complex systems and by a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship from the US Department of State. M.A.P. was supported by the FET-Proactive project PLEXMATH (FP7-ICT-2011-8; grant no. 317614) funded by the European Commission. We thank L. G. S. Jeub for help with the analysis of multilayer modularity, M. De Domenico for insightful discussions on multilayer networks, K. Lafferty for insightful discussions on the ecology of multilayer networks, and B. R. Krasnov for help with the temporal network data. M.A.P. thanks M. Kivelä and other collaborators for helping to shape his view of multilayer networks and the participants at the first GCEE workshop on Resilience and Recovery of Biological Networks to Environmental Fluctuations for illuminating discussions.

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Authors and Affiliations

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Contributions

S.P. conceived the idea, performed numerical simulations, and analysed the data; M.A.P. contributed insights about the mathematics of multilayer networks and data analysis; M.P. and S.K. contributed insights on the use of multilayer networks in ecology and the interpretation of results; S.P., M.A.P., M.P., and S.K. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Shai Pilosof.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figures 1-6; Supplementary Tables 1–6; Supplementary Notes 1–4; Supplementary References (PDF 1670 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

Raw data for the example temporal network in the Supplementary Information (XLSX 1628 kb)

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Pilosof, S., Porter, M., Pascual, M. et al. The multilayer nature of ecological networks. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0101 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0101

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