Food webs: ordering species according to body size yields high degree of intervality

J Theor Biol. 2011 Feb 21;271(1):106-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2010.11.045. Epub 2010 Dec 7.


Food webs, the networks describing "who eats whom" in an ecosystem, are nearly interval, i.e. there is a way to order the species so that almost all the resources of each consumer are adjacent in the ordering. This feature has important consequences, as it means that the structure of food webs can be described using a single (or few) species' traits. Moreover, exploiting the quasi-intervality found in empirical webs can help build better models for food web structure. Here we investigate which species trait is a good proxy for ordering the species to produce quasi-interval orderings. We find that body size produces a significant degree of intervality in almost all food webs analyzed, although it does not match the maximum intervality for the networks. There is also a great variability between webs. Other orderings based on trophic levels produce a lower level of intervality. Finally, we extend the concept of intervality from predator-centered (in which resources are in intervals) to prey-centered (in which consumers are in intervals). In this case as well we find that body size yields a significant, but not maximal, level of intervality. These results show that body size is an important, although not perfect, trait that shapes species interactions in food webs. This has important implications for the formulation of simple models used to construct realistic representations of food webs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Size*
  • Food Chain*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Phylogeny
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable
  • Species Specificity