Telling ecological networks apart by their structure: An environment-dependent approach


The network architecture of an ecological community describes the structure of species interactions established in a given place and time. It has been suggested that this architecture presents unique features for each type of ecological interaction e.g., nested and modular architectures would correspond to mutualistic and antagonistic interactions, respectively. Recently, Michalska-Smith and Allesina (2019) proposed a computational challenge to test whether it is indeed possible to differentiate ecological interactions based on network architecture. Contrary to the expectation, they found that this differentiation is practically impossible, moving the question to why it is not possible to differentiate ecological interactions based on their network architecture alone. Here, we show that this differentiation becomes possible by adding the local environmental information where the networks were sampled. We show that this can be explained by the fact that environmental conditions are a confounder of ecological interactions and network architecture. That is, the lack of association between network architecture and type of ecological interactions changes by conditioning on the local environmental conditions. Additionally, we find that environmental conditions are linked to the stability of ecological networks, but the direction of this effect depends on the type of interaction network. This suggests that the association between ecological interactions and network architectures exists, but cannot be fully understood without attention to the environmental conditions acting upon them.

PLOS Computational Biology
Chuliang Song
Chuliang Song

I am a theoretical ecologist driven by the curiosity of how biodiversity is generated and maintained.

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