Ecological communities are vulnerable to realistic extinction sequences

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Abstract

Loss of species will directly change the structure and potentially the dynamics of ecological communities, which in turn may lead to additional species loss (secondary extinctions) due to direct and/or indirect effects (e.g. loss of resources or altered population dynamics). Furthermore, the vulnerability of food webs to repeated species loss is expected to be affected by food web topology, species interactions, as well as the order in which species go extinct. Species traits such as body size, abundance and connectivity might determine a species' vulnerability to extinction and, thus, the order in which species go primarily extinct. Yet, the sequence of primary extinctions, and their effects on the vulnerability of food webs to secondary extinctions, when species abundances are allowed to respond dynamically, has only recently become the focus of attention. Here, we analyse and compare topological and dynamical robustness to secondary extinctions of model food webs, in the face of 34 extinction sequences based on species traits. Although secondary extinctions are frequent in the dynamical approach and rare in the topological approach, topological and dynamical robustness tends to be correlated for many bottom–up directed, but not for top–down directed deletion sequences. Furthermore, removing species based on traits that are strongly positively correlated to the trophic position of species (such as large body size, low abundance, high net effect) is, under the dynamical approach, found to be as destructive as removing primary producers. Such top–down oriented removal of species are often considered to correspond to realistic extinction scenarios, but earlier studies, based on topological approaches, have found such extinction sequences to have only moderate effects on the remaining community. Thus, our result suggests that the structure of ecological communities, and therefore the integrity of important ecosystem processes could be more vulnerable to realistic extinction sequences than previously believed.

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