- pawarlab.org, Imperial College Lonon, Ascot, United Kingdom
- Allometry, Biological invasions, Climate change, Community ecology, Competition, Ecosystem functioning, Food webs, Foraging, Interaction networks, Physiology, Theoretical ecology, Thermal ecology
Interplay between the paradox of enrichment and nutrient cycling in food webs
New insights into the role of nutrient cycling in food web dynamics
Understanding the factors that govern the relationship between structure, stability and functioning of food webs has been a central problem in ecology for many decades. Historically, apart from microbial and soil food webs, the role of nutrient cycling has largely been ignored in theoretical and empirical food web studies. A prime example of this is the widespread use of Lotka-Volterra type models in theoretical studies; these models per se are not designed to capture the effect of nutrients being released back into the system by interacting populations. Thus overall, we still lack a general understanding of how nutrient cycling affects food web dynamics.
A new study by Quévreux, Barot and Thébault  tackles this problem by building a new food web model. This model features some important biological details: trophic interactions and vital rates constrained by species' body masses (using Ecological Metabolic Theory), adaptive foraging, and stoichiometric rules to ensure meaningful conversion between carbon and nutrient flows. The authors analyze the model through detailed simulations combined with thorough sensitivity analyses of model assumptions and parametrizations (including of allometric scaling relationships). I am happy to recommend this preprint because of the novelty of the work and it's technical quality.
The study yields interesting and novel findings. Overall, nutrient cycling does have a strong effect on community dynamics. Nutrient recycling is driven mostly by consumers at low mineral nutrient inputs, and by primary producers at high inputs. The extra nutrients made available through recycling increases species' persistence at low nutrient input levels, but decreases persistence at higher input levels by increasing population oscillations (a new, nuanced perspective on the classical "paradox of enrichment"). Also, for the same level of nutrient input, food webs with nutrient recycling show more fluctuations in primary producer biomass (and less at higher trophic levels) than those without recycling, with this effect weakening in more complex food webs.
Overall, these results provide new insights, suggesting that nutrient cycling may enhance the positive effects of species richness on ecosystem stability, and point at interesting new directions for future theoretical and empirical studies.
 Quévreux, P., Barot, S. and E. Thébault (2020) Interplay between the paradox of enrichment and nutrient cycling in food webs. bioRxiv, 276592, ver. 7 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Ecology. doi: 10.1101/276592