Modelling food web complexity: The consequences of individual-based, spatially explicit behavioural ecology on trophic interactions

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SummaryWe present a prototype simulator that enables one to explore the influence of individual behaviour on the dynamics and structural complexity of food webs. In the simulations, individuals act according to simple, biologically plausible rules in a spatially explicit setting. We present the results of a series of simulation experiments on artificial, tri-trophic level food chains used to calibrate the simulator against real-world systems and to demonstrate the simulator's promise for ecological modelling. Our primary objective was to discover the biological features leading to stability of artificial food chains over ecological time and under different conditions of trophic efficiency. This involved a qualitative analysis of food chains comprised of a plant, a herbivore and a carnivore species. We explored the consequences of allowing individual heterotrophs to make active choices about resource selection (perception and intentional behaviour) under high and low degrees of trophic efficiency. We found that individuals had to adopt realistic behavioural ecological strategies, such as active resource selection, for systems to persist, especially under conditions in which trophic efficiencies were of the magnitude observed in real systems (e.g. 10%). Our results reaffirm previous convictions that a better understanding of food web interactions in real-world systems will require approaches that blend animal behavioural ecology with population and community ecology. However, the evidence comes from a new mathematical perspective.

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