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Food webs in space: On the interplay of dynamic instability and spatial processes




Ecologists increasingly recognize that a consideration of spatial dynamics is essential for resolving many classical problems in community ecology. In the present paper, I argue that understanding how trophic interactions influence population stability can have important implications for the expression of spatial processes. I use two examples to illustrate this point. The first example has to do with spatial determinants of food chain length. Prior theoretical and empirical work has suggested that colonization–extinction dynamics can influence food chain length, at least for specialist consumers. I briefly review evidence and prior theory that food chain length is sensitive to area. A metacommunity scenario, in which each of various patches can have a food chain varying in length (but in which a consumer is not present on a patch unless its required resource is also present), shows that alternative landscape states are possible. This possibility arises if top predators moderate unstable interactions between intermediate predators and basal resources. The second example has to do with the impact of recurrent immigration on the stability of persistent populations. Immigration can either stabilize or destabilize local population dynamics. Moreover, an increase in immigration can decrease average population size for unstable populations with direct density-dependence, or in predator–prey systems with saturating functional responses. These theoretical models suggest that the interplay of temporal variation and spatial fluxes can lead to novel qualitative phenomena.