Interaction strengths in food webs: issues and opportunities


Eric L. Berlow (E-mail:; Joel E. Cohen (E-mail:; Giorgos D. Kokkoris, (E-mail:


  • 1Recent efforts to understand how the patterning of interaction strength affects both structure and dynamics in food webs have highlighted several obstacles to productive synthesis. Issues arise with respect to goals and driving questions, methods and approaches, and placing results in the context of broader ecological theory.
  • 2Much confusion stems from lack of clarity about whether the questions posed relate to community-level patterns or to species dynamics, and to what authors actually mean by the term ‘interaction strength’. Here, we describe the various ways in which this term has been applied and discuss the implications of loose terminology and definition for the development of this field.
  • 3Of particular concern is the clear gap between theoretical and empirical investigations of interaction strengths and food web dynamics. The ecological community urgently needs to explore new ways to estimate biologically reasonable model coefficients from empirical data, such as foraging rates, body size, metabolic rate, biomass distribution and other species traits.
  • 4Combining numerical and analytical modelling approaches should allow exploration of the conditions under which different interaction strengths metrics are interchangeable with regard to relative magnitude, system responses, and species identity.
  • 5Finally, the prime focus on predator–prey links in much of the research to date on interaction strengths in food webs has meant that the potential significance of non-trophic interactions, such as competition, facilitation and biotic disturbance, has been largely ignored by the food web community. Such interactions may be important dynamically and should be routinely included in future food web research programmes.