Identifying important interaction modifications in ecological systems

5 November 2019

Terry, J. Christopher; Bonsall, Michael; Morris, Rebecca

Trophic interaction modifications, where a consumer-resource link is affected by additional species, are widespread and significant causes of non-trophic effects in ecological networks. The sheer number of potential interaction modifications in ecological systems poses a considerable challenge, making prioritisation for empirical study essential. Here, we introduce measures to quantify the topological relationship of individual interaction modifications relative to the underlying network. We use these, together with measures for the strength of trophic interaction modifications, to identify features of modifications that are most likely to exert significant effects on the dynamics of whole systems. Using a set of simulated food webs and randomly distributed interaction modifications, we test whether a subset of interaction modifications important for the local stability and direction of species responses to perturbation of complex networks can be identified. We show that trophic interaction modifications have particular importance for dynamics when they affect interactions with a high biomass flux, connect species otherwise distantly linked, and where high trophic-level species modify interactions lower in the food web. In contrast, the centrality of modifications in the network provided little information. This work demonstrates that analyses of interaction modifications can be tractable at the network scale and highlights the importance of understanding the relationship between the distributions of trophic and non-trophic effects.