1. We established complex marine communities, consisting of over 100 species, in large subtidal experimental mesocosms. We measured the strength of direct interactions and the net strength of direct and indirect interactions between the species in those communities, using a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches.
2. Theoretical predictions of interaction strength were derived from the interaction coefficient matrix, which was parameterised using allometric predator–prey relationships. Empirical estimates of interaction strength were quantified using the ln-ratio, which measures the change in biomass density of species A in the presence and absence of species B.
3. We observed that highly connected species tend to have weak direct effects and net effects in our experimental food webs, whether we calculate interaction strength theoretically or empirically.
4. We found a significant correlation between our theoretical predictions and empirical estimates of direct effects and net effects. The net effects correlation was much stronger, indicating that our experimental communities were dominated by a mixture of direct and indirect effects.
5. Re-calculation of the theoretical predictions of net effects after randomising predator and prey body masses did not affect the negative relationship with connectance.
6. These results suggest that food web topology, which in this system is constrained by body mass, is overwhelmingly important for the magnitude of direct and indirect interactions and hence species importance in the face of biodiversity declines.