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Stage structure alters how complexity affects stability of ecological networks




Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 75–79


Resolving how complexity affects stability of natural communities is of key importance for predicting the consequences of biodiversity loss. Central to previous stability analysis has been the assumption that the resources of a consumer are substitutable. However, during their development, most species change diets; for instance, adults often use different resources than larvae or juveniles. Here, we show that such ontogenetic niche shifts are common in real ecological networks and that consideration of these shifts can alter which species are predicted to be at risk of extinction. Furthermore, niche shifts reduce and can even reverse the otherwise stabilizing effect of complexity. This pattern arises because species with several specialized life stages appear to be generalists at the species level but act as sequential specialists that are hypersensitive to resource loss. These results suggest that natural communities are more vulnerable to biodiversity loss than indicated by previous analyses.

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