Literature Review: Food Web Stability

by Carl Strang

This week I want to bring together a number of recent papers, combine them with earlier concepts, and summarize them into one current view on food webs: how they are structured, how they work, and especially what keeps them from falling apart.

Introduction. Food webs include all the species in a biological community and the connections between them through which energy and nutrients flow. Food webs are organized in certain ways, apparently following rules that produce stability (resistance to change) in the webs. Over time, food webs lacking such organizing features cannot last, so as the individual species within them evolve interactions which produce those features, food webs retain them and become more stable.

Food webs are composed of food chains. Here is one link: bald eagles with glaucous-winged gull, Adak Island.

Component Communities. One important way in which food webs are organized is through component communities, the groups of consumers associated with each particular plant species (Thébault and Fontaine 2010). This specialization produces stability, because a disturbance associated with a fluctuation in a species largely is confined to that species’ component community. While too close a duplication of ecological roles within a component community detracts from stability (competition threatening to drive some species to local extinction), such duplication in a mutualistic group (e.g., a number of pollinators shared by a group of plant species) contributes to stability (a given plant or pollinator has other species to work with if one is lost; Thébault and Fontaine 2010).

My study of leaf miners in sugar maples focuses on both a component community and a guild.

Switching. A trophic level is a step in the flow of energy and nutrients, with producers (most commonly, green plants) occupying one level, primary consumers (plant eaters) occupying the next level, and so on. Here an important contributor to food web stability is the degree to which it contains generalist consumers (Thompson et al. 2007). If one food becomes scarce, the generalist can switch to another. If one food becomes abundant, the generalists can focus on it. Switching tends to keep populations as well as communities stable, because increasing numbers of an abundant species draw attention that keeps them in check, allowing less common species to recover and, therefore, persist (Neutel et al. 2007).

Raptors like this red-tailed hawk readily switch to take advantage of abundant prey.

“Top Down” Control. The action of predators and parasites, keeping prey in check, also limits the degree to which primary consumers endanger plants (“top down” control of food webs; Estes et al. 2011). At the same time, this limitation on populations provides a check that limits the ability of competitive dominants to drive other species to local extinction. Another, more evolutionary process which limits competition is the development of guilds, groups of ecologically similar species which specialize in such a way that they subdivide a resource.

Wolves are classic top predators.

Diversity and Stability. Food webs become less stable as they become simpler (less diverse), because they do not have enough species to provide such compensatory checks and balances (Anderson and Sukhdeo 2011, Irmis and Whiteside 2011). Low productivity (resulting from a limitation in nutrients, for example) is the most common condition leading to such simpler systems in which food webs are controlled from the production end rather than by consumers (Cebrian et al. 2009).

Some Recent Literature

Anderson TK, and MVK Sukhdeo. 2011. Host Centrality in Food Web Networks Determines Parasite Diversity. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26798. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026798

Cebrian J, et al. 2009. Producer Nutritional Quality Controls Ecosystem Trophic Structure. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4929. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004929

Estes, James A., et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science 333:301-306.

Irmis, Randall B., and Jessica H. Whiteside. 2011. Delayed recovery of non-marine tetrapods after the end-Permian mass extinction tracks global carbon cycle. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Published online Oct. 26, 2011; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1895

Neutel, Anje-Margriet, et al. 2007. Reconciling complexity with stability in naturally assembling food webs. Nature 449: 599-602.

Thébault, Elisa, and Colin Fontaine. 2010. Stability of ecological communities and the architecture of mutualistic and trophic networks. Science 329: 853-856.

Thompson, Ross M., et al. 2007. Trophic levels and trophic tangles: the prevalence of omnivory in real food webs. Ecology 88:612-617.

Food Chain

by Carl Strang


In an earlier post  I mentioned that I think food chains are abstractions. While that is true, sometimes you find one in more concrete terms. I ran into an example at Mayslake a couple days ago. Here is a place where cottontails have gathered in recent days to eat the bark from a tree branch that had broken off under the weight of the snow.




Forest Preserve District Plant Ecologist Scott Kobal provided an assist on the tree’s identification. The strange buds threw me, but I probably had been taught to identify the Siberian elm decades ago, and forgot.




So far so good. It’s easy enough to find evidence of animals eating things, giving you a link in a food chain. But just a few feet away was the next link. Here were the remains of a cottontail, no doubt one of those that had been feasting on elm bark, but caught by a predator and consumed on the spot.




What was the identity of the predator? The snow was clean enough all around the site that there clearly were no mammal tracks other than cottontail.




With some study it was possible to pick out bird marks.




Two tail marks, the first with associated primary feather grooves and indistinct impressions of feet. There seems to be some bearing down, and a hop forward with a second, deeper tail impression. The predator had killed the rabbit quickly, and kept it pinned with its feet while removing the head and feet, plucking out much of the fur, and apparently consuming all the rest except for a few bones.




Then the bird turned, and its departing two-footed push-off is plain. It leaped up so strongly that it did not leave the usual primary feather marks of the first wingbeat. The size and strength of this bird, as well as the dimensions of the tail impressions, say great horned owl to me. A hungry great horned seems capable of consuming a rabbit in one sitting, though it is conceivable that it carried part of its prey in its mouth when it departed. Do great horneds offer nuptial gifts? The nesting season is upon them.

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