Local stability properties of complex, species-rich soil food webs with functional block structure

Ecol Evol. 2021 Nov 3;11(22):16070-16081. doi: 10.1002/ece3.8278. eCollection 2021 Nov.


Ecologists have long debated the properties that confer stability to complex, species-rich ecological networks. Species-level soil food webs are large and structured networks of central importance to ecosystem functioning. Here, we conducted an analysis of the stability properties of an up-to-date set of theoretical soil food web models that account both for realistic levels of species richness and the most recent views on the topological structure (who is connected to whom) of these food webs. The stability of the network was best explained by two factors: strong correlations between interaction strengths and the blocked, nonrandom trophic structure of the web. These two factors could stabilize our model food webs even at the high levels of species richness that are typically found in soil, and that would make random systems very unstable. Also, the stability of our soil food webs is well-approximated by the cascade model. This result suggests that stability could emerge from the hierarchical structure of the functional organization of the web. Our study shows that under the assumption of equilibrium and small perturbations, theoretical soil food webs possess a topological structure that allows them to be complex yet more locally stable than their random counterpart. In particular, results strongly support the general hypothesis that the stability of rich and complex soil food webs is mostly driven by correlations in interaction strength and the organization of the soil food web into functional groups. The implication is that in real-world food web, any force disrupting the functional structure and distribution pattern of interaction strengths (i.e., energy fluxes) of the soil food webs will destabilize the dynamics of the system, leading to species extinction and major changes in the relative abundances of species.

Keywords: block structure; complexity; food webs; functional structure; soil; species; stability.