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Predator traits determine food-web architecture across ecosystems


Predator–prey interactions in natural ecosystems generate complex food webs that have a simple universal body-size architecture where predators are systematically larger than their prey. Food-web theory shows that the highest predator–prey body-mass ratios found in natural food webs may be especially important because they create weak interactions with slow dynamics that stabilize communities against perturbations and maintain ecosystem functioning. Identifying these vital interactions in real communities typically requires arduous identification of interactions in complex food webs. Here, we overcome this obstacle by developing predator-trait models to predict average body-mass ratios based on a database comprising 290 food webs from freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems across all continents. We analysed how species traits constrain body-size architecture by changing the slope of the predator–prey body-mass scaling. Across ecosystems, we found high body-mass ratios for predator groups with specific trait combinations including (1) small vertebrates and (2) large swimming or flying predators. Including the metabolic and movement types of predators increased the accuracy of predicting which species are engaged in high body-mass ratio interactions. We demonstrate that species traits explain striking patterns in the body-size architecture of natural food webs that underpin the stability and functioning of ecosystems, paving the way for community-level management of the most complex natural ecosystems.

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Fig. 1: Global distribution of food webs.
Fig. 2: Overall scaling of predator and prey body mass assessed by four regression methods (n = 88,197).
Fig. 3: Species’ traits constrain the scaling of log10 predator body mass with log10 prey body mass (n = 88,197).
Fig. 4: Ecosystem characteristics constrain the scaling of log10 predator body mass with log10 prey body mass (n = 88,197).
Fig. 5: The predator-trait model predicts the target predators with the highest body-mass ratios across different ecosystem types (n = 7,296).

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study (GATEWAy 1.0) are available at the iDiv data repository41.

Code availability

The R code of the statistical analyses is available as a Supplement.


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This study was supported by the German Centre for integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig funded by the German Research Foundation (grant no. FZT 118). R.T. was supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (no. FT110100957). A.C.I. was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (grant ID 1156434). C.V. acknowledges a researcher position and strategic project (no. UID/MAR/04292/2013), funded by the Portuguese Science Foundation. We thank L. Rohde, F. Schwarzmüller and A. Dell for help in organizing a prior version of the database.

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Authors and Affiliations



U.B. developed the study design. U.B., P.A., A.D.B., L.-F.B., T.B., J.C.-C., E.C., M.D., C.D., A.D., A.A.V.F., K.F., B.G., C.G., J.H., M.R.H., U.J., M.J., S.K., O.M., M.M.M., E.L., K.L.-D., P.L., Y.L., C.M., N.D.M., V.M., C.M., S.A.N., E.J.O., D.O., J.P., D. Perkins, D. Piechnik, I.P., D.R., B.C.R., B.R., R.R., A.S., E.H.S., N.S., M.S.A.T., R.M.T., F.V., C.V., S.W., J.M.W., R.J.W., E.W., G.W. and A.C.I. gathered, contributed or organized data. U.B. and B.R. carried out statistical analyses. M.R.H. created the figures. U.B. and A.C.I. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ulrich Brose.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Statistical Methods, Supplementary Metadata and Supplementary References

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Supplementary Code

R code of the statistical analysis

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Brose, U., Archambault, P., Barnes, A.D. et al. Predator traits determine food-web architecture across ecosystems. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 919–927 (2019).

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