Get access

The form of direct interspecific competition modifies secondary extinction patterns in multi-trophic food webs


M. S. Fowler, Inst. Mediterrani d’Estudis Avançats (IMEDEA, UIB-CSIC), C/ Miquel Marquès 21, ES-07190 Esporles, Spain. Present address: Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research, Dept of Biosciences, Wallace Building, Swansea Univ., Singleton Park, SA2 8PP, UK. E-mail:


Forcibly removing species from ecosystems has important consequences for the remaining assemblage, leading to changes in community structure, ecosystem functioning and secondary (cascading) extinctions. One key question that has arisen from single- and multi-trophic ecosystem models is whether the secondary extinctions that occur within competitive communities (guilds) are also important in multi-trophic ecosystems? The loss of consumer–resource links obviously causes secondary extinction of specialist consumers (topological extinctions), but the importance of secondary extinctions in multi-trophic food webs driven by direct competitive exclusion remains unknown. Here I disentangle the effects of extinctions driven by basal competitive exclusion from those caused by trophic interactions in a multi-trophic ecosystem (basal producers, intermediate and top consumers). I compared food webs where basal species either show diffuse (all species compete with each other identically: no within guild extinctions following primary extinction) or asymmetric competition (unequal interspecific competition: within guild extinctions are possible). Basal competitive exclusion drives extra extinction cascades across all trophic levels, with the effect amplified in larger ecosystems, though varying connectance has little impact on results. Secondary extinction patterns based on the relative abundance of the species lost in the primary extinction differ qualitatively between diffuse and asymmetric competition. Removing asymmetric basal species with low (high) abundance triggers fewer (more) secondary extinctions throughout the whole food web than removing diffuse basal species. Rare asymmetric competitors experience less pressure from consumers compared to rare diffuse competitors. Simulations revealed that diffuse basal species are never involved in extinction cascades, regardless of the trophic level of a primary extinction, while asymmetric competitors were. This work highlights important qualitative differences in extinction patterns that arise when different assumptions are made about the form of direct competition in multi-trophic food webs.