Disturbances in food webs : Importance of species interactions from an ecological and evolutionary perspective

Abstract: Biodiversity loss is occurring globally at an unprecedented pace. This is not only followed by ethical concerns; it also affects all levels of an ecosystem, with wide-spread implications for ecosystem functioning, services and human well-being. The severe extinction risk for many species is a result of human activities, such as habitat destruction and land-use change, overexploitation and introduction of invasive species. During the past decades, climate change has additionally become an important human-induced driver, causing biodiversity loss and altered species interactions.To mitigate the negative impact on ecosystems, we need to understand how the species building up the systems respond to disturbances. Several structural properties, both at species- and network-level, are known to affect species vulnerability. At the species-level, a species position in the food web, as well as its distribution of prey items, are important factors. At the network-level, diversity and structure of feeding interactions are important measurements related to stability. Additionally, species may both directly and indirectly affect other species, as species are entangled in complex network structures. The loss of a single species could set in motion a cascade of secondary extinctions that may not be predictable based on species’ performance in isolation. Particularly, disturbances of primary producers have a high risk to propagate and augment through the network. Moreover, species interactions have the potential to affect several other ecological processes. For example, altered environmental conditions force species to disperse to more suitable habitats, or to stay and adapt to the new local condition. Such processes can be significantly altered by species interactions. Another example concerns ecosystem service provisioning. Even if a species not being a service provider goes extinct, the event can via direct and indirect effects cause secondary extinctions of service providing species, causing loss of the services.Despite the recognition of the importance of a network context and of species interactions, such aspects are in many cases modeled in a simplified manner or not considered. In this thesis, I use mathematical models to study how species embedded in an ecological network respond to disturbances. I have two primary focus areas. First, I analyze how the interplay between evolution, dispersal and species interactions affect how species respond to climatic change. In paper I, I studied the effects of these eco-evolutionary processes under increasing temperatures, using empirically-motivated parameterizations of a suite of community models with increasing ecological interaction complexity. Second, I analyze how several structural properties affect species persistence following a disturbance. In Paper II, I focus on how network-level properties as well as species-level properties affect consumer species persistence following basal level disturbances. In Paper III, I disentangle the most influential characteristics of groups of basal species, causing a negative impact on consumer species when disturbed. I use the Serengeti savanna food web as case study. In Paper IV, I connect ecosystem services to the species providing them, and analyze how ecosystem service provisioning is affected by anthropogenic threats. I use the Baltic Sea as a case study.In summary, the results of this thesis underscore the importance of studying disturbances within a network context. Species interactions highly influenced the eco-evolutionary dynamics in Paper I, and mitigated some of the negative impacts following climatic change. Several structural network properties, both of the species being disturbed and of the species being affected, influenced species’ vulnerability following disturbance in Paper II-IV. The interplay between species influenced how disturbances percolated through the network. Moreover, Paper IV found that indirect effects mediated by the network of species interactions were of substantial importance for how anthropogenic threats are affecting ecosystem service delivery. in this thesis, I have developed novel methods, as well as extended and showcased new applications for existing ones. As such, this thesis has a broad applicability and expands our basic understanding of the interplay between ecological and evolutionary processes, as well as our understanding of the mechanisms behind how networks of interacting species are affected by disturbances. Further, the results have important implications for conservation efforts.

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