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Does asymmetric specialization differ between mutualistic and trophic networks?


  • Elisa Thébault,

  • Colin Fontaine

E. Thébault ( and C. Fontaine, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot, Berkshire, UK, SL5 7PY and: Biogéochimie et Ecologie des Milieux Continentaux, UMR 7618, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 46 rue d'Ulm, FR–75230 Paris Cedex 05, France.


Recently, plant–pollinator networks have been found to be highly structured in a nested pattern in which specialists interact with generalist species. This structure is often assumed to be particular to mutualistic interactions in opposition to the compartmentalized pattern expected for antagonistic networks. We investigated the presence of asymmetric specialization in a data set assembled from the literature of 20 highly resolved plant–insect herbivore networks and compared them with 24 plant–pollinator networks. Our results indicate that these two types of networks differ, but not in the way it is generally assumed. Asymmetric specialization is present in plant–herbivore networks even if it appears less frequently than in plant–pollinator networks. Indeed, mean and median percentages of species showing asymmetric specialisation in herbivory webs are 33% and 14% respectively, compared to 57% and 60% in pollination webs. Furthermore, the amount of asymmetry is linked with species diversity and not to connectance in plant-pollinator networks whereas the opposite pattern is found in plant–herbivore networks. Our results offer promising perspectives for understanding both the mechanisms that structure ecological communities and their impact on community dynamics depending on the type of interaction.