Environmental change makes robust ecological networks fragile

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Complex ecological networks appear robust to primary extinctions, possibly due to consumers' tendency to specialize on dependable (available and persistent) resources. However, modifications to the conditions under which the network has evolved might alter resource dependability. Here, we ask whether adaptation to historical conditions can increase community robustness, and whether such robustness can protect communities from collapse when conditions change. Using artificial life simulations, we first evolved digital consumer-resource networks that we subsequently subjected to rapid environmental change. We then investigated how empirical host-parasite networks would respond to historical, random and expected extinction sequences. In both the cases, networks were far more robust to historical conditions than new ones, suggesting that new environmental challenges, as expected under global change, might collapse otherwise robust natural ecosystems.




Strona, G., & Lafferty, K. D. (2016). Environmental change makes robust ecological networks fragile. Nature Communications, 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12462

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