Article

Dispersal governs the reorganization of ecological networks under environmental change

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0162 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0162
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Abstract

Ecological networks, such as food webs, mutualist webs and host–parasite webs, are reorganizing as species abundances and spatial distributions shift in response to environmental change. Current theoretical expectations for how this reorganization will occur are available for competition or for parts of interaction networks, but these may not extend to more complex networks. Here we use metacommunity theory to develop new expectations for how complex networks will reorganize under environmental change, and show that dispersal is crucial for determining the degree to which networks will retain their composition and structure. When dispersal between habitat patches is low, all types of species interactions act as a strong determinant for whether species can colonize suitable habitats. This colonization resistance drives species turnover, which breaks apart current networks and leads to the formation of new networks. However, when dispersal rates are increased, colonists arrive in high abundance in habitats where they are well adapted, so interactions with resident species contribute less to colonization success. Dispersal ensures that species associations are maintained as they shift in space, so networks retain similar composition and structure. The crucial role of dispersal reinforces the need to manage habitat connectivity to sustain species and interaction diversity into the future.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. O’Connor, B. Beisner, G. Fussmann, E. Pedersen, A. Ives and members of the Gonzalez lab for assistance and valuable feedback. P.L.T. is supported by NSERC, Vineberg and Killam fellowships. A.G. is supported by the Canada Research Chair program, Killam Fellowship, the Liber Ero Chair in Conservation Biology and NSERC.

Author information

Author notes

    • Patrick L. Thompson

    Present address: Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

Affiliations

  1. Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1B1, Canada.

    • Patrick L. Thompson
    •  & Andrew Gonzalez

Authors

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Contributions

P.L.T. and A.G. designed the study. P.L.T. wrote the code and performed the simulations. P.L.T. wrote the first draft of the manuscript and both authors contributed substantially to revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patrick L. Thompson.

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