Loss of predator species, not intermediate consumers, triggers rapid and dramatic extinction cascades

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Abstract

Ecological networks are tightly interconnected, such that loss of a single species can trigger additional species extinctions. Theory predicts that such secondary extinctions are driven primarily by loss of species from intermediate or basal trophic levels. In contrast, most cases of secondary extinctions from natural systems have been attributed to loss of entire top trophic levels. Here, we show that loss of single predator species in isolation can, irrespective of their identity or the presence of other predators, trigger rapid secondary extinction cascades in natural communities far exceeding those generally predicted by theory. In contrast, we did not find any secondary extinctions caused by intermediate consumer loss. A food web model of our experimental system—a marine rocky shore community—could reproduce these results only when biologically likely and plausible nontrophic interactions, based on competition for space and predator-avoidance behaviour, were included. These findings call for a reassessment of the scale and nature of extinction cascades, particularly the inclusion of nontrophic interactions, in forecasts of the future of biodiversity.

We show that loss of single predator species in isolation can, irrespective of their identity, trigger rapid secondary extinction cascades in natural communities far exceeding those generally predicted by theory. A food web model of our experimental system—a marine rocky shore community—could reproduce these results only when biologically likely and plausible nontrophic interactions, based on competition for space and predator-avoidance behaviour, were included. Our findings call for a reassessment of the scale and nature of extinction cascades, particularly the inclusion of nontrophic interactions, in forecasts of the future of biodiversity.

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