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Concept: Energy flow


Global warming and ocean acidification are forecast to exert significant impacts on marine ecosystems worldwide. However, most of these projections are based on ecological proxies or experiments on single species or simplified food webs. How energy fluxes are likely to change in marine food webs in response to future climates remains unclear, hampering forecasts of ecosystem functioning. Using a sophisticated mesocosm experiment, we model energy flows through a species-rich multilevel food web, with live habitats, natural abiotic variability, and the potential for intra- and intergenerational adaptation. We show experimentally that the combined stress of acidification and warming reduced energy flows from the first trophic level (primary producers and detritus) to the second (herbivores), and from the second to the third trophic level (carnivores). Warming in isolation also reduced the energy flow from herbivores to carnivores, the efficiency of energy transfer from primary producers and detritus to herbivores and detritivores, and the living biomass of detritivores, herbivores, and carnivores. Whilst warming and acidification jointly boosted primary producer biomass through an expansion of cyanobacteria, this biomass was converted to detritus rather than to biomass at higher trophic levels-i.e., production was constrained to the base of the food web. In contrast, ocean acidification affected the food web positively by enhancing trophic flow from detritus and primary producers to herbivores, and by increasing the biomass of carnivores. Our results show how future climate change can potentially weaken marine food webs through reduced energy flow to higher trophic levels and a shift towards a more detritus-based system, leading to food web simplification and altered producer-consumer dynamics, both of which have important implications for the structuring of benthic communities.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Ecology, Ecosystem, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow, Biomass


The question whether top-down or bottom-up forces dominate trophic relationships, energy flow, and abundances within food webs has fuelled much ecological research with particular focus on soil litter ecosystems. Because litter simultaneously provides habitat structure and a basal resource, disentangling direct trophic and indirect non-trophic effects on different trophic levels remains challenging. Here, we focussed on short-term per capita interaction strengths of generalist predators (centipedes) on their microbi-detritivore prey (springtails) and addressed how the habitat structuring effects of the leaf litter modifies this interaction. We performed a series of laboratory functional response experiments where four levels of habitat structure were constructed by adding different amounts of leaf litter to the experimental arenas. We found that increased leaf litter reduced the consumption rate of the predator. We interpreted this as a dilution effect of the augmented habitat size provided by the increasing leaf litter surface available to the species. Dilution of the prey population decreased encounter rates, whereas the capture success was not affected. Interestingly, our results imply that top-down control by centipedes decreased with increasing resource supply for the microbi-detritivore prey (i.e. the leaf litter that simultaneously provides habitat structure). Therefore, effective top-down control of predators on microbi-detritvore populations seems unlikely in litter-rich ecosystems due to the non-trophic, habitat-structuring effect of the basal litter resource.

Concepts: Effect, Predation, Ecology, Effectiveness, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow


Although diversity and limnology of alpine lake systems are well studied, their food web structure and properties have rarely been addressed. Here, the topological food webs of three high mountain lakes in Central Spain were examined. We first addressed the pelagic networks of the lakes, and then we explored how food web topology changed when benthic biota was included to establish complete trophic networks. We conducted a literature search to compare our alpine lacustrine food webs and their structural metrics with those of 18 published lentic webs using a meta-analytic approach. The comparison revealed that the food webs in alpine lakes are relatively simple, in terms of structural network properties (linkage density and connectance), in comparison with lowland lakes, but no great differences were found among pelagic networks. The studied high mountain food webs were dominated by a high proportion of omnivores and species at intermediate trophic levels. Omnivores can exploit resources at multiple trophic levels, and this characteristic might reduce competition among interacting species. Accordingly, the trophic overlap, measured as trophic similarity, was very low in all three systems. Thus, these alpine networks are characterized by many omnivorous consumers with numerous prey species and few consumers with a single or few prey and with low competitive interactions among species. The present study emphasizes the ecological significance of omnivores in high mountain lakes as promoters of network stability and as central players in energy flow pathways via food partitioning and enabling energy mobility among trophic levels.

Concepts: Ecology, Lake, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow, Omnivore, Benthic zone


The feasibility domain of an ecological community can be described by the set of environmental abiotic and biotic conditions under which all co-occurring and interacting species in a given site and time can have positive abundances. Mathematically, the feasibility domain corresponds to the parameter space compatible with positive (feasible) solutions at equilibrium for all the state variables in a system under a given model of population dynamics. Under specific dynamics, the existence of a feasible equilibrium is a necessary condition for species persistence regardless of whether the feasible equilibrium is dynamically stable or not. Thus, the size of the feasibility domain can also be used as an indicator of the tolerance of a community to random environmental variations. This has motivated a rich research agenda to estimate the feasibility domain of ecological communities. However, these methodologies typically assume that species interactions are static, or that input and output energy flows on each trophic level are unconstrained. Yet, this is different to how communities behave in nature. Here, we present a step-by-step quantitative guideline providing illustrative examples, computational code, and mathematical proofs to study systematically the feasibility domain of ecological communities under changes of interspecific interactions and subject to different constraints on the trophic energy flows. This guideline covers multi-trophic communities that can be formed by any type of interspecific interactions. Importantly, we show that the relative size of the feasibility domain can significantly change as a function of the biological information taken into consideration. We believe that the availability of these methods can allow us to increase our understanding about the limits at which ecological communities may no longer tolerate further environmental perturbations, and can facilitate a stronger integration of theoretical and empirical research.

Concepts: Scientific method, Mathematics, Biology, Ecology, Trophic level, Energy flow, Trophic dynamics, Biogeography


Indirect interactions between species have long been of interest to ecologists. One such interaction type takes place when energy or materials flow via one or more intermediate species between two species with a direct predator-prey relationship. Previous work has shown that, although each such flow is small, their great number makes them important in ecosystems. A new network analysis method, dynamic environ approximation, was used to quantify the fraction of energy flowing from prey to predator over paths of length greater than 1 (flow indirectness or FI) in a commonly studied food web model. Web structure was created using the niche model and dynamics followed the Yodzis-Innes model. The effect of food web size (10 to 40 species) and connectance (0.1 to 0.48) on FI was examined. For each of 250 model realizations run for each pair of size and connectance values, the FI of every predator-prey interaction in the model was computed and then averaged over the whole network. A classification and regression tree (CART) analysis was then used to find the best predictors of FI. The mean FI of the model food webs is 0.092, with a standard deviation of 0.0279. It tends to increase with system size but peaks at intermediate connectance levels. Of 27 potential predictor variables, only five (mean path length, dominant eigenvalue of the adjacency matrix, connectance, mean trophic level and fraction of species belonging to intermediate trophic levels) were selected by the CART algorithm as best accounting for variation in the data; mean path length and the dominant eigenvalue of the adjacency matrix were dominant.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow, Predictor, Trophic dynamics


Predator-prey relationships and trophic levels are indicators of community structure, and are important for monitoring ecosystem changes. Mammals colonized the marine environment on seven separate occasions, which resulted in differences in species' physiology, morphology and behaviour. It is likely that these changes have had a major effect upon predator-prey relationships and trophic position; however, the effect of environment is yet to be clarified. We compiled a dataset, based on the literature, to explore the relationship between body mass, trophic level and predator-prey ratio across terrestrial (n = 51) and marine (n = 56) mammals. We did not find the expected positive relationship between trophic level and body mass, but we did find that marine carnivores sit 1.3 trophic levels higher than terrestrial carnivores. Also, marine mammals are largely carnivorous and have significantly larger predator-prey ratios compared with their terrestrial counterparts. We propose that primary productivity, and its availability, is important for mammalian trophic structure and body size. Also, energy flow and community structure in the marine environment are influenced by differences in energy efficiency and increased food web stability. Enhancing our knowledge of feeding ecology in mammals has the potential to provide insights into the structure and functioning of marine and terrestrial communities.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Mammal, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow, Carnivore


Biodiversity research has shown that primary productivity increases with plant species number, especially in many experimental grassland systems. Here, we assessed the correlation between productivity and diversity of phytophages and natural enemy assemblages associated with planting date and intercropping in four cotton agroecosystems. Twenty-one pairs of data were used to determine Pearson correlations between species richness, total number of individuals, diversity indices and productivity for each assemblage every five days from 5 June to 15 September 2012. At the same trophic level, the productivity exhibited a significant positive correlation with species richness of the phytophage or predator assemblage. A significant correlation was found between productivity and total number of individuals in most cotton fields. However, no significant correlations were observed between productivity and diversity indices (including indices of energy flow diversity and numerical diversity) in most cotton fields for either the phytophage or the predator assemblages. Species richness of phytophage assemblage and total individual numbers were significantly correlated with primary productivity. Also, species richness of natural enemy assemblage and total number of individuals correlated with phytophage assemblage productivity. A negative but not significant correlation occurred between the indices of numerical diversity and energy flow diversity and lower trophic-level productivity in the cotton-phytophage and phytophage-predator assemblages for most intercropped cotton agroecosystems. Our results clearly showed that there were no correlations between diversity indices and productivity within the same or lower trophic levels within the phytophage and predator assemblages in cotton agroecosystems, and inter-cropped cotton fields had a stronger ability to support the natural enemy assemblage and potentially to reduce phytophages.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Spearman's rank correlation coefficient, Correlation and dependence, Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient, Trophic level, Apex predator, Energy flow


Abundance, diversity and community structure of meiofauna, with special emphasis on epiphytic harpacticoid copepods, occurring in Tanzanian seagrass beds under various nutrient inputs was determined. All measured parameters for epiphytic meiofauna and diatoms (fucoxanthin) were negatively affected by nutrient input and this was detected even at the higher taxonomic levels of meiofauna, supporting the validity of higher taxon surrogacy in environmental impact studies. However, benthic meiofauna and other biofilm characteristics (chlorophyll a) did not show any difference between sites suggesting that nutrient enrichment had less impact on these variables. This indicates a differential impact of pollution on epiphytic vs. benthic communities. Consequently, different trophic levels will be impacted in various ways and hence the effects of pollution on the overall ecosystem functioning of seagrass beds are complex and not straightforward. Although the seagrass plants themselves don’t show any major changes under different nutrient input, associated organisms that guarantee energy flow at basal levels of the food web in this ecosystem can be largely impacted.

Concepts: Plant, Effect, Ecology, Benthos, Chlorophyll, Trophic level, Food chain, Energy flow