Generalized Models Reveal Stabilizing Factors in Food Webs

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Science  07 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5941, pp. 747-750
DOI: 10.1126/science.1173536

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Untangling Food Webs

The factors affecting the stability of food webs are important in conservation and ecological restoration. Gross et al. (p. 747) used a generalized modeling approach to evaluate billions of replicates of food webs in order to reveal the properties that stabilize (or destabilize) food webs. Variability in the strength of trophic links between predator and prey strength affected stability in different ways depending on the size of the web—stabilizing only in relatively small food webs and destabilizing in larger ones. Universal topological rules were extracted for the patterns of network links that enhance food-web stability.


Insights into what stabilizes natural food webs have always been limited by a fundamental dilemma: Studies either need to make unwarranted simplifying assumptions, which undermines their relevance, or only examine few replicates of small food webs, which hampers the robustness of findings. We used generalized modeling to study several billion replicates of food webs with nonlinear interactions and up to 50 species. In this way, first we show that higher variability in link strengths stabilizes food webs only when webs are relatively small, whereas larger webs are instead destabilized. Second, we reveal a new power law describing how food-web stability scales with the number of species and their connectance. Third, we report two universal rules: Food-web stability is enhanced when (i) species at a high trophic level feed on multiple prey species and (ii) species at an intermediate trophic level are fed upon by multiple predator species.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: thilo.gross{at}

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