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29 Dec 2018
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The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web

From deserts to avocado orchards - understanding realized trophic interactions in communities

Recommended by based on reviews by Owen Petchey and 2 anonymous reviewers

The late eminent ecologist Gary Polis once stated that “most catalogued food-webs are oversimplified caricatures of actual communities” and are “grossly incomplete representations of communities in terms of both diversity and trophic connections.” Not content with that damning indictment, he went further by railing that “theorists are trying to explain phenomena that do not exist” [1]. The latter critique might have been push back for Robert May´s ground-breaking but ultimately flawed research on the relationship between food-web complexity and stability [2]. Polis was a brilliant ecologist, and his thinking was clearly influenced by his experiences researching desert food webs. Those food webs possess an uncommon combination of properties, such as frequent omnivory, cannibalism, and looping; high linkage density (L/S); and a nearly complete absence of apex consumers, since few species completely lack predators or parasites [3]. During my PhD studies, I was lucky enough to visit Joshua Tree National Park on the way to a conference in New England, and I could immediately see the problems posed by desert ecosystems. At the time, I was ruminating on the “harsh-benign” hypothesis [4], which predicts that the relative importance of abiotic and biotic forces should vary with changes in local environmental conditions (from harsh to benign). Specifically, in more “harsh” environments, abiotic factors should determine community composition whilst weakening the influence of biotic interactions. However, in the harsh desert environment I saw first-hand evidence that species interactions were not diminished; if anything, they were strengthened. Teddy-bear chollas possessed murderously sharp defenses to protect precious water, creosote bushes engaged in belowground “chemical warfare” (allelopathy) to deter potential competitors, and rampant cannibalism amongst scorpions drove temporal and spatial ontogenetic niche partitioning. Life in the desert was hard, but you couldn´t expect your competition to go easy on you.
If that experience colored my thinking about nature’s reaction to a capricious environment, then the seminal work by Robert Paine on the marine rocky shore helped further cement the importance of biotic interactions. The insights provided by Paine [5] brings us closer to the research reported in the preprint “The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web” [6], given that the authors in that study hold the environment constant and test the interactions between different permutations of a simple community. Paine [5] was able to elegantly demonstrate using the chief protagonist Pisaster ochraceus (a predatory echinoderm also known as the purple sea star) that a keystone consumer could exert strong top-down control that radically reshaped the interactions amongst other community members. What was special about this study was that the presence of Pisaster promoted species diversity by altering competition for space by sedentary species, providing a rare example of an ecological network experiment combining trophic and non-trophic interactions. Whilst there are increasing efforts to describe these interactions (e.g., competition and facilitation) in multiplex networks [7], the authors of “The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web” [6] have avoided strictly competitive interactions for the sake of simplicity. They do focus on two trophic forms of competition, namely intraguild predation and apparent competition. These two interaction motifs, along with prey switching are relevant to my own research on the influence of cross-ecosystem prey subsidies to receiving food webs [8]. In particular, the apparent competition motif may be particularly important in the context of emergent adult aquatic insects as prey subsidies to terrestrial consumers. This was demonstrated by Henschel et al. [9] where the abundances of emergent adult aquatic midges in riparian fields adjacent to a large river helped stimulate higher abundances of spiders and lower abundances of herbivorous leafhoppers, leading to a trophic cascade. The aquatic insects had a bottom-up effect on spiders and this subsidy facilitated a top-down effect that cascaded from spiders to leafhoppers to plants. The apparent competition motif becomes relevant because the aquatic midges exerted a negative indirect effect on leafhoppers mediated through their common arachnid predators.
In the preprint “The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web” [6], the authors have described different permutations of a simple mite community present in avocado orchards (Persea americana). This community comprises of two predators (Euseius stipulatus and Neoseiulus californicus), one herbivore as shared prey (Oligonychus perseae), and pollen of Carpobrotus edulis as alternative food resource, with the potential for the intraguild predation and apparent competition interaction motifs to be expressed. The authors determined that these motifs should be realized based off pairwise feeding trials. It is common for food-web researchers to depict potential food webs, which contain all species sampled and all potential trophic links based on laboratory feeding trials (as demonstrated here) or from observational data and literature reviews [10]. In reality, not all these potential feeding links are realized because species may partition space and time, thus driving alternative food-web architectures. In “The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web” [6], the authors are able to show that placing species in combinations that should yield more complex interaction motifs based off pairwise feeding trials fails to deliver – the predators revert to their preferred prey resulting in modular and simple trophic chains to be expressed. Whilst these realized interaction motifs may be stable, there might also be a tradeoff with function by yielding less top-down control than desirable when considering the potential for ecosystem services such as pest management. These are valuable insights, although it should be noted that here the fundamental niche is described in a strictly Eltonian sense as a trophic role [11]. Adding additional niche dimensions (sensu [12]), such as a thermal gradient could alter the observed interactions, although it might be possible to explain these contingencies through metabolic and optimal foraging theory combined with species traits. Nonetheless, the results of these experiments further demonstrate the need for ecologists to cross-validate theory with empirical approaches to develop more realistic and predictive food-web models, lest they invoke the wrath of Gary Polis´ ghost by “trying to explain phenomena that do not exist”.


[1] Polis, G. A. (1991). Complex trophic interactions in deserts: an empirical critique of food-web theory. The American Naturalist, 138(1), 123-155. doi: 10.1086/285208
[2] May, R. M. (1973). Stability and complexity in model ecosystems. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA
[3] Dunne, J. A. (2006). The network structure of food webs. In Pascual, M., & Dunne, J. A. (eds) Ecological Networks: Linking Structure to Dynamics in Food Webs. Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 27-86
[4] Menge, B. A., & Sutherland, J. P. (1976). Species diversity gradients: synthesis of the roles of predation, competition, and temporal heterogeneity. The American Naturalist, 110(973), 351-369. doi: 10.1086/283073
[5] Paine, R. T. (1966). Food web complexity and species diversity. The American Naturalist, 100(910), 65-75. doi: 10.1086/282400
[6] Torres-Campos, I., Magalhães, S., Moya-Laraño, J., & Montserrat, M. (2018). The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web. bioRxiv, 324178, ver. 5 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecol. doi: 10.1101/324178
[7] Kéfi, S., Berlow, E. L., Wieters, E. A., Joppa, L. N., Wood, S. A., Brose, U., & Navarrete, S. A. (2015). Network structure beyond food webs: mapping non‐trophic and trophic interactions on Chilean rocky shores. Ecology, 96(1), 291-303. doi: 10.1890/13-1424.1
[8] Burdon, F. J., & Harding, J. S. (2008). The linkage between riparian predators and aquatic insects across a stream‐resource spectrum. Freshwater Biology, 53(2), 330-346. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2427.2007.01897.x
[9] Henschel, J. R., Mahsberg, D., & Stumpf, H. (2001). Allochthonous aquatic insects increase predation and decrease herbivory in river shore food webs. Oikos, 93(3), 429-438. doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0706.2001.930308.x
[10] Brose, U., Pavao-Zuckerman, M., Eklöf, A., Bengtsson, J., Berg, M. P., Cousins, S. H., Mulder, C., Verhoef, H. A., & Wolters, V. (2005). Spatial aspects of food webs. In de Ruiter, P., Wolters, V., Moore, J. C., & Melville-Smith, K. (eds) Dynamic Food Webs. vol 3. Academic Press, Burlington, 463-469
[11] Elton, C. (1927). Animal Ecology. Sidgwick and Jackson, London, UK
[12] Hutchinson, G. E. (1957). Concluding Remarks. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 22, 415-427. doi: 10.1101/sqb.1957.022.01.039

The return of the trophic chain: fundamental vs realized interactions in a simple arthropod food webInmaculada Torres-Campos, Sara Magalhães, Jordi Moya-Laraño, Marta Montserrat<p>The mathematical theory describing small assemblages of interacting species (community modules or motifs) has proved to be essential in understanding the emergent properties of ecological communities. These models use differential equations to ...Community ecology, Experimental ecologyFrancis John Burdon2018-05-16 19:34:10 View
21 Oct 2020
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Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate change

Uncertain predictions of species responses to perturbations lead to underestimate changes at ecosystem level in diverse systems

Recommended by based on reviews by Carlos Melian and 1 anonymous reviewer

Different sources of uncertainty are known to affect our ability to predict ecological dynamics (Petchey et al. 2015). However, the consequences of uncertainty on prediction biases have been less investigated, especially when predictions are scaled up to higher levels of organisation as is commonly done in ecology for instance. The study of Orr et al. (2020) addresses this issue. It shows that, in complex systems, the uncertainty of unbiased predictions at a lower level of organisation (e.g. species level) leads to a bias towards underestimation of change at higher level of organisation (e.g. ecosystem level). This bias is strengthened by larger uncertainty and by higher dimensionality of the system.
This general result has large implications for many fields of science, from economics to energy supply or demography. In ecology, as discussed in this study, these results imply that the uncertainty of predictions of species’ change increases the probability of underestimation of changes of diversity and stability at community and ecosystem levels, especially when species richness is high. The uncertainty of predictions of species’ change also increases the probability of underestimation of change when multiple ecosystem functions are considered at once, or when the combined effect of multiple stressors is considered.
The consequences of species diversity on ecosystem functions and stability have received considerable attention during the last decades (e.g. Cardinale et al. 2012, Kéfi et al. 2019). However, since the bias towards underestimation of change increases with species diversity, future studies will need to investigate how the general statistical effect outlined by Orr et al. might affect our understanding of the well-known relationships between species diversity and ecosystem functioning and stability in response to perturbations.


Cardinale BJ, Duffy JE, Gonzalez A, Hooper DU, Perrings C, Venail P, Narwani A, Mace GM, Tilman D, Wardle DA, Kinzig AP, Daily GC, Loreau M, Grace JB, Larigauderie A, Srivastava DS, Naeem S (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486, 59–67.
Kéfi S, Domínguez‐García V, Donohue I, Fontaine C, Thébault E, Dakos V (2019) Advancing our understanding of ecological stability. Ecology Letters, 22, 1349–1356.
Orr JA, Piggott JJ, Jackson A, Arnoldi J-F (2020) Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate change. bioRxiv, 2020.05.26.117200.
Petchey OL, Pontarp M, Massie TM, Kéfi S, Ozgul A, Weilenmann M, Palamara GM, Altermatt F, Matthews B, Levine JM, Childs DZ, McGill BJ, Schaepman ME, Schmid B, Spaak P, Beckerman AP, Pennekamp F, Pearse IS (2015) The ecological forecast horizon, and examples of its uses and determinants. Ecology Letters, 18, 597–611.

Why scaling up uncertain predictions to higher levels of organisation will underestimate changeJames Orr, Jeremy Piggott, Andrew Jackson, Jean-François Arnoldi<p>Uncertainty is an irreducible part of predictive science, causing us to over- or underestimate the magnitude of change that a system of interest will face. In a reductionist approach, we may use predictions at the level of individual system com...Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, Theoretical ecologyElisa ThebaultAnonymous2020-06-02 15:41:12 View
07 Oct 2019
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Deer slow down litter decomposition by reducing litter quality in a temperate forest

Disentangling effects of large herbivores on litter decomposition

Recommended by based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

Aboveground – belowground interactions is a fascinating field that has developed in ecology since about 20 years [1]. This field has been very fruitful as measured by the numerous articles published but also by the particular role it has played in the development of soil ecology. While soil ecology has for a long time developed partially independently from “general ecology” [2], the field of aboveground – belowground interactions has shown that all ecological interactions occurring within the soil are likely to impact plant growth and plant physiology because they have their roots within the soil. In turns, this should impact the aerial system of plants (higher or lower biomasses, changes in leaf quality…), which should cascade on the aboveground food web. Conversely, all ecological interactions occurring aboveground likely impact plant growth, which should cascade to their root systems, and thus to the soil functioning and the soil food web (through changes in the emission of exudates or inputs of dead roots…). Basically, plants are linking the belowground and aboveground worlds because, as terrestrial primary producers, they need to have (1) leaves to capture CO2 and exploit light and (2) roots to absorb water and mineral nutrients. The article I presently recommend [3] tackles this general issue through the prism of the impact of large herbivores on the decomposition of leaf litter.
This issue is a relatively old one [4, 5] but still deserves efforts because there have been relatively few studies on the subject and because the issue is relatively complex due to the diversity of mechanisms involved and the difficulty to disentangle them. I recommend this article because the authors have cleverly taken advantage of a ‘‘natural’’ long-term experiment, i.e. three islands with contrasted deer densities, to test whether these large mammals are able to impact leaf litter decomposition and whether they are able to do so through changes in litter quality (because they browse the vegetation) or through changes in soil characteristics (either physical or chemical characteristics or the composition of the decomposer community). They have found that deer decrease litter decomposition, mainly through a decrease in litter quality (increase in its C:N ratio). I particularly appreciate the combination of statistics achieved to test the different hypotheses and the fair and in-depth discussion of the results.
I have to confess that I have two small regrets with this work. First, all replications are implemented within the same three islands, so that it cannot be fully excluded that measured effects should not be attributed to any other possible difference between the three islands. I am fairly sure this is not the case (at least because the three islands have the same environments) but I hope that future studies or meta-analyses will be able analyse independent deer density treatments. Second, as a soil ecologist, I am eager to see results on the decomposer communities, both microorganisms and macrofauna, of the three islands.


[1] Hooper, D. U., Bignell, D. E., Brown, V. K., Brussard, L., Dangerfield, J. M., Wall, D. H. and Wolters, V. (2000). Interactions between Aboveground and Belowground Biodiversity in Terrestrial Ecosystems: Patterns, Mechanisms, and Feedbacks. BioScience, 50(12), 1049-1061. doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050[1049:ibaabb];2
[2] Barot, S., Blouin, M., Fontaine, S., Jouquet, P., Lata, J.-C., and Mathieu, J. (2007). A Tale of Four Stories: Soil Ecology, Theory, Evolution and the Publication System. PLOS ONE, 2(11), e1248. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001248
[3] Chollet S., Maillard M., Schörghuber J., Grayston S. and Martin J.-L. (2019). Deer slow down litter decomposition by reducing litter quality in a temperate forest. bioRxiv, 690032, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi: 10.1101/690032
[4] Wardle, D. A., Barker, G. M., Yeates, G. W., Bonner, K. I., and Ghani, A. (2001). Introduced browsing mammals in New Zealand natural forests: aboveground and belowground consequences. Ecological Monographs, 71(4), 587-614. doi: 10.1890/0012-9615(2001)071[0587:ibminz];2
[5] Bardgett, R. D., and Wardle, D. A. (2003). Herbivore-mediated linkages between aboveground and belowground communities. Ecology, 84(9), 2258-2268. doi: 10.1890/02-0274

Deer slow down litter decomposition by reducing litter quality in a temperate forest Simon Chollet, Morgane Maillard, Juliane Schorghuber, Sue Grayston, Jean-Louis Martin<p>In temperate forest ecosystems, the role of deer in litter decomposition, a key nutrient cycling process, remains debated. Deer may modify the decomposition process by affecting plant cover and thus modifying litter abundance. They can also alt...Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, Herbivory, Soil ecologySébastien Barot2019-07-04 14:30:19 View
03 Jan 2024
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Diagnosis of planktonic trophic network dynamics with sharp qualitative changes

A new approach to describe qualitative changes of complex trophic networks

Recommended by based on reviews by Tim Coulson and 1 anonymous reviewer

Modelling the temporal dynamics of trophic networks has been a key challenge for community ecologists for decades, especially when anthropogenic and natural forces drive changes in species composition, abundance, and interactions over time. So far, most modelling methods fail to incorporate the inherent complexity of such systems, and its variability, to adequately describe and predict temporal changes in the topology of trophic networks. 

Taking benefit from theoretical computer science advances, Gaucherel and colleagues (2024) propose a new methodological framework to tackle this challenge based on discrete-event Petri net methodology. To introduce the concept to naïve readers the authors provide a useful example using a simplistic predator-prey model.

The core biological system of the article is a freshwater trophic network of western France in the Charente-Maritime marshes of the French Atlantic coast. A directed graph describing this system was constructed to incorporate different functional groups (phytoplankton, zooplankton, resources, microbes, and abiotic components of the environment) and their interactions. Rules and constraints were then defined to, respectively, represent physiochemical, biological, or ecological processes linking network components, and prevent the model from simulating unrealistic trajectories. Then the full range of possible trajectories of this mechanistic and qualitative model was computed.

The model performed well enough to successfully predict a theoretical trajectory plus two trajectories of the trophic network observed in the field at two different stations, therefore validating the new methodology introduced here. The authors conclude their paper by presenting the power and drawbacks of such a new approach to qualitatively model trophic networks dynamics.


Cedric Gaucherel, Stolian Fayolle, Raphael Savelli, Olivier Philippine, Franck Pommereau, Christine Dupuy (2024) Diagnosis of planktonic trophic network dynamics with sharp qualitative changes. bioRxiv 2023.06.29.547055, ver. 2 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.

Diagnosis of planktonic trophic network dynamics with sharp qualitative changesCedric Gaucherel, Stolian Fayolle, Raphael Savelli, Olivier Philippine, Franck Pommereau, Christine Dupuy<p>Trophic interaction networks are notoriously difficult to understand and to diagnose (i.e., to identify contrasted network functioning regimes). Such ecological networks have many direct and indirect connections between species, and these conne...Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, Food webs, Freshwater ecology, Interaction networks, Microbial ecology & microbiologyFrancis Raoul Tim Coulson2023-07-03 10:42:34 View
16 Nov 2020
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Intraspecific diversity loss in a predator species alters prey community structure and ecosystem functions

Hidden diversity: how genetic richness affects species diversity and ecosystem processes in freshwater ponds

Recommended by based on reviews by Andrew Barnes and Jes Hines

Biodiversity loss can have important consequences for ecosystem functions, as exemplified by a large body of literature spanning at least three decades [1–3]. While connections between species diversity and ecosystem functions are now well-defined and understood, the importance of diversity within species is more elusive. Despite a surge in theoretical work on how intraspecific diversity can affect coexistence in simple community types [4,5], not much is known about how intraspecific diversity drives ecosystem processes in more complex community types. One particular challenge is that intraspecific diversity can be expressed as observable variation of functional traits, or instead subsist as genetic variation of which the consequences for ecosystem processes are harder to grasp.
Raffard et al. [6] examined how intraspecific biodiversity loss in a consumer fish changes species diversity at lower trophic levels and ecosystem processes in pond mesocosms. An interesting feature of this experiment is that it crosses functional and genetic intraspecific diversity. To do so, Raffard and colleagues measured and genotyped European minnow (P. phoxinus) individuals sampled from streams across southern France. Combining these collected specimens into experimental ponds allowed them to control functional (population variance of body size) and genetic intraspecific richness (number of genotypes).
Effects on minnow biomass production were mostly small; biomass was significantly reduced only when lowering both functional and genetic richness. However, the consequences for lower trophic levels (zooplankton and macroinvertebrates) were more pronounced and – importantly – not intuitive. For instance, the macroinvertebrate community was less species-diverse at higher minnow functional richness. If minnows with different body sizes would be the main regulator factors [7] explaining macroinvertebrate interactions, one would expect a more diverse set of minnow body sizes (i.e. higher functional minnow richness) to permit higher instead of lower macroinvertebrate richness. At the same time, the macroinvertebrate community was more species-diverse at higher minnow genotype richness, which could indicate unobserved minnow traits determining macroinvertebrate diversity more than the usual suspects (functional consumer richness). Such unobserved traits could be behavioral traits, allowing for resource partitioning among fish.
The consequences of functional minnow diversity loss on zooplankton diversity were negative, as expected in case body size differences among fish would facilitate coexistence of their zooplankton prey, as explained above. However, this was only the case when genetic diversity was high, suggesting nonstraightforward interactive effects of observed and non-observed traits on prey diversity.
The effects of functional and genetic minnow diversity loss on invertebrate (macroinvertebrates and zooplankton) abundance were more consistent than for invertebrate diversity. This suggests again nonstraightforward relationships in this experimental ecosystem, but now between invertebrate diversity and abundance. When using abundance as a proxy for an ecosystem process (which the authors did not), this result illustrates that biodiversity loss in multitrophic communities can have consequences that are challenging to interpret, let alone predict [8,9]. Path analyses showed how the observed changes of invertebrate diversity and abundance co-determined decomposition, a key ecosystem function. These path analyses had highest explanatory power show when including both kinds of intraspecific diversity.
Taken together, the results by Raffard and colleagues suggest that genetic consumer richness can drive species diversity of connected trophic levels and ecosystem processes with similar magnitude as functional diversity. Indeed, the effects of genetic consumer richness were shown to be so strong as to compensate or exacerbate the loss of observed functional richness. The exact mechanisms explaining these effects remain to be identified, however. The possibility that fish grazing by fish with different (observed or not observed) traits regulates coexistence among invertebrate prey, for instance, would depend on how strong fish consumption feeds back on prey growth during a 30-week experiment. As the authors indicate, detailed studies on resource partitioning among consumers (e.g. using stable isotope labelling) can shed light on these matters. Doing so may address a more fundamental question, which is if the mechanisms linking intraspecific diversity to function are different from those linking interspecific diversity to function, and at what time scales.


[1] Tilman D, Downing JA (1994) Biodiversity and stability in grasslands. Nature, 367, 363–365.
[2] Cardinale BJ, Duffy JE, Gonzalez A, Hooper DU, Perrings C, Venail P, Narwani A, Mace GM, Tilman D, Wardle DA, Kinzig AP, Daily GC, Loreau M, Grace JB, Larigauderie A, Srivastava DS, Naeem S (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486, 59–67.
[3] De Laender F, Rohr JR, Ashauer R, Baird DJ, Berger U, Eisenhauer N, Grimm V, Hommen U, Maltby L, Meliàn CJ, Pomati F, Roessink I, Radchuk V, Brink PJV den (2016) Reintroducing Environmental Change Drivers in Biodiversity–Ecosystem Functioning Research. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 31, 905–915.
[4] Hart SP, Schreiber SJ, Levine JM (2016) How variation between individuals affects species coexistence. Ecology Letters, 19, 825–838.
[5] Barabás G, D’Andrea R (2016) The effect of intraspecific variation and heritability on community pattern and robustness. Ecology Letters, 19, 977–986.
[6] Raffard A, Cucherousset J, Montoya JM, Richard M, Acoca-Pidolle S, Poésy C, Garreau A, Santoul F, Blanchet S (2020) Intraspecific diversity loss in a predator species alters prey community structure and ecosystem functions. bioRxiv, 2020.06.10.144337, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology.
[7] Pásztor L, Botta-Dukát Z, Magyar G, Czárán T, Meszéna G. Theory-Based Ecology: A Darwinian approach. Oxford University Press.
[8] Binzer A, Guill C, Rall BC, Brose U (2016) Interactive effects of warming, eutrophication and size structure: impacts on biodiversity and food-web structure. Global Change Biology, 22, 220–227.
[9] Schwarz B, Barnes AD, Thakur MP, Brose U, Ciobanu M, Reich PB, Rich RL, Rosenbaum B, Stefanski A, Eisenhauer N (2017) Warming alters energetic structure and function but not resilience of soil food webs. Nature Climate Change, 7, 895–900.

Intraspecific diversity loss in a predator species alters prey community structure and ecosystem functionsAllan Raffard, Julien Cucherousset, José M. Montoya, Murielle Richard, Samson Acoca-Pidolle, Camille Poésy, Alexandre Garreau, Frédéric Santoul & Simon Blanchet.<p>Loss in intraspecific diversity can alter ecosystem functions, but the underlying mechanisms are still elusive, and intraspecific biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships (iBEF) have been restrained to primary producers. Here, we manipulat...Community ecology, Ecosystem functioning, Experimental ecology, Food webs, Freshwater ecologyFrederik De Laender Andrew Barnes2020-06-15 09:04:53 View
23 Mar 2020
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Intraspecific difference among herbivore lineages and their host-plant specialization drive the strength of trophic cascades

Tell me what you’ve eaten, I’ll tell you how much you’ll eat (and be eaten)

Recommended by and based on reviews by Bastien Castagneyrol and 1 anonymous reviewer

Tritrophic interactions have a central role in ecological theory and applications [1-3]. Particularly, systems comprised of plants, herbivores and predators have historically received wide attention given their ubiquity and economic importance [4]. Although ecologists have long aimed to understand the forces that govern alternating ecological effects at successive trophic levels [5], several key open questions remain (at least partially) unanswered [6]. In particular, the analysis of complex food webs has questioned whether ecosystems can be viewed as a series of trophic chains [7,8]. Moreover, whether systems are mostly controlled by top-down (trophic cascades) or bottom-up processes remains an open question [6].
Traditionally, studies have addressed how species diversity at different food chain compartments affect the strength and direction of trophic cascades [9]. For example, many studies have tested whether biological control was more efficient with more than one species of natural enemies [10-12]. Much less attention has been given to the role of within-species variation in shaping trophic cascades [13]. In particular, whereas the impact of trait variation within species of plants or predators on successive trophic levels has been recently addressed [14,15], the impact of intraspecific herbivore variation is in its infancy (but see [16]). This is at odds with the resurgent acknowledgment of the importance of individual variation for several ecological processes operating at higher levels of biological organization [17].
Sources of variation within species can come in many flavours. In herbivores, striking ecological variation can be found among populations occurring on different host plants, which become genetically differentiated, thus forming host races [18,19]. Curiously, the impact of variation across host races on the strength of trophic cascades has, to date, not been explored. This is the gap that the manuscript by Sentis and colleagues [20] fills. They experimentally studied a curious tri-trophic system where the primary consumer, pea aphids, specializes in different plant hosts, creating intraspecific variation across biotypes. Interestingly, there is also ecological variation across lineages from the same biotype. The authors set up experimental food chains, where pea aphids from different lineages and biotypes were placed in their universal legume host (broad bean plants) and then exposed to a voracious but charming predator, ladybugs. The full factorial design of this experiment allowed the authors to measure vertical effects of intraspecific variation in herbivores on both plant productivity (top-down) and predator individual growth (bottom-up).
The results nicely uncover the mechanisms by which intraspecific differences in herbivores precipitates vertical modulation in food chains. Herbivore lineage and host-plant specialization shaped the strength of trophic cascades, but curiously these effects were not modulated by density-dependence. Further, ladybugs consuming pea aphids from different lineages and biotypes grew at distinct rates, revealing bottom-up effects of intraspecific variation in herbivores.
These findings are novel and exciting for several reasons. First, they show how intraspecific variation in intermediate food chain compartments can simultaneously reverberate both top-down and bottom-up effects. Second, they bring an evolutionary facet to the understanding of trophic cascades, providing valuable insights on how genetically differentiated populations play particular ecological roles in food webs. Finally, Sentis and colleagues’ findings [20] have critical implications well beyond their study systems. From an applied perspective, they provide an evident instance on how consumers’ evolutionary specialization matters for their role in ecosystems processes (e.g. plant biomass production, predator conversion rate), which has key consequences for biological control initiatives and invasive species management. From a conceptual standpoint, their results ignite the still neglected value of intraspecific variation (driven by evolution) in modulating the functioning of food webs, which is a promising avenue for future theoretical and empirical studies.


[1] Price, P. W., Bouton, C. E., Gross, P., McPheron, B. A., Thompson, J. N., & Weis, A. E. (1980). Interactions among three trophic levels: influence of plants on interactions between insect herbivores and natural enemies. Annual review of Ecology and Systematics, 11(1), 41-65. doi: 10.1146/
[2] Olff, H., Brown, V.K. & Drent, R.H. (1999). Herbivores: between plants and predators. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
[3] Tscharntke, T. & Hawkins, B.A. (2002). Multitrophic level interactions. Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511542190
[4] Agrawal, A. A. (2000). Mechanisms, ecological consequences and agricultural implications of tri-trophic interactions. Current opinion in plant biology, 3(4), 329-335. doi: 10.1016/S1369-5266(00)00089-3
[5] Pace, M. L., Cole, J. J., Carpenter, S. R., & Kitchell, J. F. (1999). Trophic cascades revealed in diverse ecosystems. Trends in ecology & evolution, 14(12), 483-488. doi: 10.1016/S0169-5347(99)01723-1
[6] Abdala‐Roberts, L., Puentes, A., Finke, D. L., Marquis, R. J., Montserrat, M., Poelman, E. H., ... & Mooney, K. (2019). Tri‐trophic interactions: bridging species, communities and ecosystems. Ecology letters, 22(12), 2151-2167. doi: 10.1111/ele.13392
[7] Polis, G.A. & Winemiller, K.O. (1996). Food webs. Integration of patterns and dynamics. Chapmann & Hall, New York. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4615-7007-3
[8] Torres‐Campos, I., Magalhães, S., Moya‐Laraño, J., & Montserrat, M. (2020). The return of the trophic chain: Fundamental vs. realized interactions in a simple arthropod food web. Functional Ecology, 34(2), 521-533. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.13470
[9] Polis, G. A., Sears, A. L., Huxel, G. R., Strong, D. R., & Maron, J. (2000). When is a trophic cascade a trophic cascade?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 15(11), 473-475. doi: 10.1016/S0169-5347(00)01971-6
[10] Sih, A., Englund, G., & Wooster, D. (1998). Emergent impacts of multiple predators on prey. Trends in ecology & evolution, 13(9), 350-355. doi: 10.1016/S0169-5347(98)01437-2
[11] Diehl, E., Sereda, E., Wolters, V., & Birkhofer, K. (2013). Effects of predator specialization, host plant and climate on biological control of aphids by natural enemies: a meta‐analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50(1), 262-270. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12032
[12] Snyder, W. E. (2019). Give predators a complement: conserving natural enemy biodiversity to improve biocontrol. Biological control, 135, 73-82. doi: 10.1016/j.biocontrol.2019.04.017
[13] Des Roches, S., Post, D. M., Turley, N. E., Bailey, J. K., Hendry, A. P., Kinnison, M. T., ... & Palkovacs, E. P. (2018). The ecological importance of intraspecific variation. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2(1), 57-64. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0402-5
[14] Bustos‐Segura, C., Poelman, E. H., Reichelt, M., Gershenzon, J., & Gols, R. (2017). Intraspecific chemical diversity among neighbouring plants correlates positively with plant size and herbivore load but negatively with herbivore damage. Ecology Letters, 20(1), 87-97. doi: 10.1111/ele.12713
[15] Start, D., & Gilbert, B. (2017). Predator personality structures prey communities and trophic cascades. Ecology letters, 20(3), 366-374. doi: 10.1111/ele.12735
[16] Turcotte, M. M., Reznick, D. N., & Daniel Hare, J. (2013). Experimental test of an eco-evolutionary dynamic feedback loop between evolution and population density in the green peach aphid. The American Naturalist, 181(S1), S46-S57. doi: 10.1086/668078
[17] Bolnick, D. I., Amarasekare, P., Araújo, M. S., Bürger, R., Levine, J. M., Novak, M., ... & Vasseur, D. A. (2011). Why intraspecific trait variation matters in community ecology. Trends in ecology & evolution, 26(4), 183-192. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.01.009
[18] Drès, M., & Mallet, J. (2002). Host races in plant–feeding insects and their importance in sympatric speciation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 357(1420), 471-492. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2002.1059
[19] Magalhães, S., Forbes, M. R., Skoracka, A., Osakabe, M., Chevillon, C., & McCoy, K. D. (2007). Host race formation in the Acari. Experimental and Applied Acarology, 42(4), 225-238. doi: 10.1007/s10493-007-9091-0
[20] Sentis, A., Bertram, R., Dardenne, N., Simon, J.-C., Magro, A., Pujol, B., Danchin, E. and J.-L. Hemptinne (2020) Intraspecific difference among herbivore lineages and their host-plant specialization drive the strength of trophic cascades. bioRxiv, 722140, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi: 10.1101/722140

Intraspecific difference among herbivore lineages and their host-plant specialization drive the strength of trophic cascadesArnaud Sentis, Raphaël Bertram, Nathalie Dardenne, Jean-Christophe Simon, Alexandra Magro, Benoit Pujol, Etienne Danchin and Jean-Louis Hemptinne<p>Trophic cascades, the indirect effect of predators on non-adjacent lower trophic levels, are important drivers of the structure and dynamics of ecological communities. However, the influence of intraspecific trait variation on the strength of t...Community ecology, Eco-evolutionary dynamics, Food webs, Population ecologySara Magalhães2019-08-02 09:11:03 View
13 Jul 2023
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Parasites make hosts more profitable but less available to predators

Indirect effects of parasitism include increased profitability of prey to optimal foragers

Recommended by based on reviews by Thierry DE MEEUS and Eglantine Mathieu-Bégné

Even though all living organisms are, at the same time, involved in host-parasite interactions and embedded in complex food webs, the indirect effects of parasitism are only beginning to be unveiled.

Prosnier et al. investigated the direct and indirect effects of parasitism making use of a very interesting biological system comprising the freshwater zooplankton Daphnia magna and its highly specific parasite, the iridovirus DIV-1 (Daphnia-iridescent virus 1). Daphnia are typically semitransparent, but once infected develop a white phenotype with a characteristic iridescent shine due to the enlargement of white fat cells.

In a combination of infection trials and comparison of white and non-white phenotypes collected in natural ponds, the authors demonstrated increased mortality and reduced lifetime fitness in infected Daphnia. Furthermore, white phenotypes had lower mobility, increased reflectance, larger body sizes and higher protein content than non-white phenotypes. As a consequence, total energy content was effectively doubled in white Daphnia when compared to non-white broodless Daphnia

Next the authors conducted foraging trials with Daphnia predators Notonecta (the backswimmer) and Phoxinus (the European minnow). Focusing on Notonecta, unchanged search time and increased handling time were more than compensated by the increased energy content of white Daphnia. White Daphnia were 24% more profitable and consistently preferred by Notonecta, as the optimal foraging theory would predict. The authors argue that menu decisions of optimal foragers in the field might be different, however, as the prevalence – and therefore availability - of white phenotypes in natural populations is very low.

The study therefore contributes to our understanding of the trophic context of parasitism. One shortcoming of the study is that the authors rely exclusively on phenotypic signs for determining infection. On their side, DIV-1 is currently known to be highly specific to Daphnia, their study site is well within DIV-1 distributional range, and the symptoms of infection are very conspicuous. Furthermore, the infection trial – in which non-white Daphnia were exposed to white Daphnia homogenates - effectively caused several lethal and sublethal effects associated with DIV-1 infection, including iridescence. However, the infection trial also demonstrated that part of the exposed individuals developed intermediate traits while still keeping the non-white, non-iridescent phenotype. Thus, there may be more subtleties to the association of DIV-1 infection of Daphnia with ecological and evolutionary consequences, such as costs to resistance or covert infection, that the authors acknowledge, and that would be benefitted by coupling experimental and observational studies with the determination of actual infection and viral loads.​​​


Prosnier L., N. Loeuille, F.D. Hulot, D. Renault, C. Piscart, B. Bicocchi, M, Deparis, M. Lam, & V. Médoc. (2023). Parasites make hosts more profitable but less available to predators. BioRxiv, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.

Parasites make hosts more profitable but less available to predatorsLoïc Prosnier, Nicolas Loeuille, Florence D. Hulot, David Renault, Christophe Piscart, Baptiste Bicocchi, Muriel Deparis, Matthieu Lam, Vincent Médoc<p>Parasites are omnipresent, and their eco-evolutionary significance has aroused much interest from scientists. Parasites may affect their hosts in many ways by altering host density, vulnerability to predation, and energy content, thus modifying...Community ecology, Eco-evolutionary dynamics, Epidemiology, Experimental ecology, Food webs, Foraging, Freshwater ecology, Host-parasite interactions, Life history, Parasitology, Statistical ecologyLuis Schiesari2022-05-20 10:15:41 View
07 Jun 2023
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High intraspecific growth variability despite strong evolutionary heritage in a neotropical forest

Environmental and functional determinants of tree performance in a neotropical forest: the imprint of evolutionary legacy on growth strategies

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by David Murray-Stoker, Camille Girard and Jelena Pantel

The hyperdiverse tropical forests have long fascinated ecologists because the fact that so many species persist at a low density at a local scale remains hard to explain. Both niche-based and neutral hypotheses have been tested, primarily based on analyzing the taxonomic composition of tropical forest plots (Janzen 1970; Hubbell 2001). Studies of the functional and phylogenetic structure of tropical tree communities have further aimed to better assess the importance of niche-based processes. For instance, Baraloto et al. (2012) found that co-occurring species were functionally and phylogenetically more similar in a neotropical forest, suggesting a role of environmental filtering. Likewise, Schmitt et al. (2021) found the influence of environmental filtering on the functional composition of an Indian rainforest. Yet these studies evidenced non-random trait-environment association based on the composition of assemblages only (in terms of occurrences and abundances). A major challenge remains to further address whether and how tree performance varies among species and individuals in tropical forests.

Functional traits are related to components of individual fitness (Violle et al. 2007). Recently, more and more emphasis has been put on examining the relationship between functional trait values and demographic parameters (Salguero-Gómez et al. 2018), in order to better understand how functional trait values determine species population dynamics and abundances in assemblages. Fortunel et al. (2018) found an influence of functional traits on species growth variation related to topography, and less clearly to neighborhood density (crowding). Poorter et al. (2018) observed 44% of trait variation within species in a neotropical forest. Although individual trait values would be expected to be better predictors of performance than average values measured at the species level, Poorter et al still found a poor relationship.

Schmitt et al. (2023) examined how abiotic conditions and biotic interactions (considering neighborhood density) influenced the variation of individual potential tree growth, in a tropical forest plot located in French Guiana. They also considered the link between species-averaged values of growth potential and functional traits. Schmitt et al. (2023) found substantial variation in growth potential within species, that functional traits explained 40% of the variation of species-averaged growth and, noticeably, that the taxonomic structure (used as random effect in their model) explained a third of the variation in individual growth.

Although functional traits of roots, wood and leaves could predict a significant part of species growth potential, much variability of tree growth occurred within species. Intraspecific trait variation can thus be huge in response to changing abiotic and biotic contexts across individuals. The information on phylogenetic relationships can still provide a proxy of the integrated phenotypic variation that is under selection across the phylogeny, and determine a variation in growth strategies among individuals. The similarity of the phylogenetic structure suggests a joint selection of these growth strategies and related functional traits during events of convergent evolution. Baraloto et al. (2012) already noted that phylogenetic distance can be a proxy of niche overlap in tropical tree communities. Here, Schmitt et al. further demonstrate that evolutionary heritage is significantly related to individual growth variation, and plead for better acknowledging this role in future studies.

While the role of fitness differences in tropical tree community dynamics remained to be assessed, the present study provides new evidence that individual growth does vary depending on evolutionary relationships, which can reflect the roles of selection and adaptation on growth strategies. Therefore, investigating both the influence of functional traits and phylogenetic relationships on individual performance remains a promising avenue of research, for functional and community ecology in general.


Baraloto, Christopher, Olivier J. Hardy, C. E. Timothy Paine, Kyle G. Dexter, Corinne Cruaud, Luke T. Dunning, Mailyn-Adriana Gonzalez, et al. 2012. « Using functional traits and phylogenetic trees to examine the assembly of tropical tree communities ». Journal of Ecology, 100: 690‑701.
Fortunel Claire, Lasky Jesse R., Uriarte María, Valencia Renato, Wright S.Joseph, Garwood Nancy C., et Kraft Nathan J. B. 2018. « Topography and neighborhood crowding can interact to shape species growth and distribution in a diverse Amazonian forest ». Ecology, 99(10): 2272-2283.
Hubbell, S. P. 2001. The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography. 1 vol. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Janzen, Daniel H. 1970. « Herbivores and the number of tree species in tropical forests ». American Naturalist, 104(940): 501-528.
Poorter, Lourens, Carolina V. Castilho, Juliana Schietti, Rafael S. Oliveira, et Flávia R. C. Costa. 2018. « Can traits predict individual growth performance? A test in a hyperdiverse tropical forest ». New Phytologist, 219 (1): 109‑21.
Salguero-Gómez, Roberto, Cyrille Violle, Olivier Gimenez, et Dylan Childs. 2018. « Delivering the promises of trait-based approaches to the needs of demographic approaches, and vice versa ». Functional Ecology, 32 (6): 1424‑35.
Schmitt, Sylvain, Valérie Raevel, Maxime Réjou‐Méchain, Narayanan Ayyappan, Natesan Balachandran, Narayanan Barathan, Gopalakrishnan Rajashekar, et François Munoz. 2021. « Canopy and understory tree guilds respond differently to the environment in an Indian rainforest ». Journal of Vegetation Science, e13075.
Sylvain Schmitt, Bruno Hérault, et Géraldine Derroire. 2023. « High intraspecific growth variability despite strong evolutionary heritage in a neotropical forest ». bioRxiv, 2022.07.27.501745, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.
Violle, C., M. L. Navas, D. Vile, E. Kazakou, C. Fortunel, I. Hummel, et E. Garnier. 2007. « Let the concept of trait be functional! » Oikos, 116(5), 882-892.

High intraspecific growth variability despite strong evolutionary heritage in a neotropical forestSylvain Schmitt, Bruno Hérault, Géraldine Derroire<p style="text-align: justify;">Individual tree growth is a key determinant of species performance and a driver of forest dynamics and composition. Previous studies on tree growth unravelled the variation in species growth as a function of demogra...Community ecology, Demography, Population ecologyFrançois Munoz Jelena Pantel, David Murray-Stoker2022-08-01 14:29:04 View
31 Aug 2023
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Assessing species interactions using integrated predator-prey models

Addressing the daunting challenge of estimating species interactions from count data

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO and ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

Trophic interactions are at the heart of community ecology. Herbivores consume plants, predators consume herbivores, and pathogens and parasites infect, and sometimes kill, individuals of all species in a food web. Given the ubiquity of trophic interactions, it is no surprise that ecologists and evolutionary biologists strive to accurately characterize them. 

The outcome of an interaction between individuals of different species depends upon numerous factors such as the age, sex, and even phenotype of the individuals involved and the environment in which they are in. Despite this complexity, biologists often simplify an interaction down to a single number, an interaction coefficient that describes the average outcome of interactions between members of the populations of the species. Models of interacting species tend to be very simple, and interaction coefficients are often estimated from time series of population sizes of interacting species. Although biologists have long known that this approach is often approximate and sometimes unsatisfactory, work on estimating interaction strengths in more complex scenarios, and using ecological data beyond estimates of abundance, is still in its infancy. 

In their paper, Matthieu Paquet and Frederic Barraquand (2023)​ develop a demographic model of a predator and its prey. They then simulate demographic datasets that are typical of those collected by ecologists and use integrated population modelling to explore whether they can accurately retrieve the values interaction coefficients included in their model. They show that they can with good precision and accuracy. The work takes an important step in showing that accurate interaction coefficients can be estimated from the types of individual-based data that field biologists routinely collect, and it paves for future work in this area.

As if often the case with exciting papers such as this, the work opens up a number of other avenues for future research. What happens as we move from demographic models of two species interacting such as those used by Paquet and Barraquand​ to more realistic scenarios including multiple species? How robust is the approach to incorrectly specified process or observation models, core components of integrated population modelling that require detailed knowledge of the system under study? 

Integrated population models have become a powerful and widely used tool in single-species population ecology. It is high time the techniques are extended to community ecology, and this work takes an important step in showing that this should and can be done. I would hope the paper is widely read and cited.


Paquet, M., & Barraquand, F. (2023). Assessing species interactions using integrated predator-prey models. EcoEvoRxiv, ver. 2 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.

Assessing species interactions using integrated predator-prey modelsMatthieu Paquet, Frederic Barraquand<p style="text-align: justify;">Inferring the strength of species interactions from demographic data is a challenging task. The Integrated Population Modelling (IPM) approach, bringing together population counts, capture-recapture, and individual-...Community ecology, Demography, Food webs, Population ecology, Statistical ecologyTim Coulson Ilhan Özgen-Xian2023-01-05 17:02:22 View
03 Jun 2022
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Evolutionary emergence of alternative stable states in shallow lakes

How to evolve an alternative stable state

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Jean-François Arnoldi and 1 anonymous reviewer

Alternative stable states describe ecosystems that can persist in more than one configuration. An ecosystem can shift between stable states following some form of perturbation. There has been much work on predicting when ecosystems will shift between stable states, but less work on why some ecosystems are able to exist in alternative stable states in the first place. The paper by Ardichvili, Loeuille, and Dakos (2022) addresses this question using a simple model of a shallow lake. Their model is based on a trade-off between access to light and nutrient availability in the water column, two essential resources for the macrophytes they model. They then identify conditions when the ancestral macrophyte will diversify resulting in macrophyte species living at new depths within the lake. The authors find a range of conditions where alternative stable states can evolve, but the range is narrow. Nonetheless, their model suggests that for alternative stable states to exist, one requirement is for there to be asymmetric competition between competing species, with one species being a better competitor on one limiting resource, with the other being a better competitor on a second limiting resource. 

These results are interesting and add to growing literature on how asymmetric competition can aid species coexistence. Asymmetric competition may be widespread in nature, with closely related species often being superior competitors on different resources. Incorporating asymmetric competition, and its evolution, into models does complicate theoretical investigations, but Ardichvili, Loeuille, and Dakos’ paper elegantly shows how substantial progress can be made with a model that is still (relatively) simple.


Ardichvili A, Loeuille N, Dakos V (2022) Evolutionary emergence of alternative stable states in shallow lakes. bioRxiv, 2022.02.23.481597, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology.

Evolutionary emergence of alternative stable states in shallow lakesAlice Ardichvili, Nicolas Loeuille, Vasilis Dakos<p style="text-align: justify;">Ecosystems under stress may respond abruptly and irreversibly through tipping points. Although much is explored on the mechanisms that affect tipping points and alternative stable states, little is known on how ecos...Community ecology, Competition, Eco-evolutionary dynamics, Theoretical ecologyTim Coulson2022-03-01 10:54:05 View