Tri-trophic interactions: bridging species, communities and ecosystems

Ecol Lett. 2019 Dec;22(12):2151-2167. doi: 10.1111/ele.13392. Epub 2019 Oct 21.


A vast body of research demonstrates that many ecological and evolutionary processes can only be understood from a tri-trophic viewpoint, that is, one that moves beyond the pairwise interactions of neighbouring trophic levels to consider the emergent features of interactions among multiple trophic levels. Despite its unifying potential, tri-trophic research has been fragmented, following two distinct paths. One has focused on the population biology and evolutionary ecology of simple food chains of interacting species. The other has focused on bottom-up and top-down controls over the distribution of biomass across trophic levels and other ecosystem-level variables. Here, we propose pathways to bridge these two long-standing perspectives. We argue that an expanded theory of tri-trophic interactions (TTIs) can unify our understanding of biological processes across scales and levels of organisation, ranging from species evolution and pairwise interactions to community structure and ecosystem function. To do so requires addressing how community structure and ecosystem function arise as emergent properties of component TTIs, and, in turn, how species traits and TTIs are shaped by the ecosystem processes and the abiotic environment in which they are embedded. We conclude that novel insights will come from applying tri-trophic theory systematically across all levels of biological organisation.

Keywords: abiotic forcing; arthropod behaviour; ecosystem effects; food web; indirect defence; trophic cascade.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Ecology
  • Ecosystem*
  • Food Chain*