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Environmental fluctuations can stabilize food web dynamics by increasing synchrony




Natural food webs are species-rich, but classical theory suggests that they should be unstable and extinction-prone. Asynchronous fluctuations in the densities of competing consumers can stabilize food web dynamics in constant environments. However, environmental fluctuations often synchronize dynamics in nature. Using the same ‘diamond-shape’ food web model first used to demonstrate the stabilizing effects of asynchrony in constant environments, we show that weak-to-moderate environmentally induced fluctuations in consumer mortality rates stabilize food webs while disrupting asynchrony. Synchrony actually promotes stability because: (i) synchronous declines in consumer density reduce the maximum abundance of top predators and (ii) resource competition quickly converts synchronous increases in consumer density into synchronous declines. These results are robust to details of food web topology and the implementation of environmental fluctuations. The fluctuation strengths that enhance stability are within the range experienced naturally by many species, suggesting that stabilization via environmental fluctuations is a realistic possibility.