An improved null model for assessing the net effects of multiple stressors on communities

Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Jan;24(1):517-525. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13852. Epub 2017 Sep 1.


Ecological stressors (i.e., environmental factors outside their normal range of variation) can mediate each other through their interactions, leading to unexpected combined effects on communities. Determining whether the net effect of stressors is ecologically surprising requires comparing their cumulative impact to a null model that represents the linear combination of their individual effects (i.e., an additive expectation). However, we show that standard additive and multiplicative null models that base their predictions on the effects of single stressors on community properties (e.g., species richness or biomass) do not provide this linear expectation, leading to incorrect interpretations of antagonistic and synergistic responses by communities. We present an alternative, the compositional null model, which instead bases its predictions on the effects of stressors on individual species, and then aggregates them to the community level. Simulations demonstrate the improved ability of the compositional null model to accurately provide a linear expectation of the net effect of stressors. We simulate the response of communities to paired stressors that affect species in a purely additive fashion and compare the relative abilities of the compositional null model and two standard community property null models (additive and multiplicative) to predict these linear changes in species richness and community biomass across different combinations (both positive, negative, or opposite) and intensities of stressors. The compositional model predicts the linear effects of multiple stressors under almost all scenarios, allowing for proper classification of net effects, whereas the standard null models do not. Our findings suggest that current estimates of the prevalence of ecological surprises on communities based on community property null models are unreliable, and should be improved by integrating the responses of individual species to the community level as does our compositional null model.

Keywords: additive; antagonistic; community biomass; ecological surprises; environmental change; species richness; synergistic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Climate Change*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Ecosystem*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Stress, Physiological