Network spandrels reflect ecological assembly

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Authors Daniel S. Maynard, Carlos A. Serván, Stefano Allesina
Journal/Conference Name Ecology Letters
Paper Category , ,
Paper Abstract Ecological networks that exhibit stable dynamics should theoretically persist longer than those that fluctuate wildly. Thus, network structures which are over-represented in natural systems are often hypothesised to be either a cause or consequence of ecological stability. Rarely considered, however, is that these network structures can also be by-products of the processes that determine how new species attempt to join the community. Using a simulation approach in tandem with key results from random matrix theory, we illustrate how historical assembly mechanisms alter the structure of ecological networks. We demonstrate that different community assembly scenarios can lead to the emergence of structures that are often interpreted as evidence of ‘selection for stability’. However, by controlling for the underlying selection pressures, we show that these assembly artefacts—or spandrels—are completely unrelated to stability or selection, and are instead by-products of how new species are introduced into the system. We propose that these network-assembly spandrels are critically overlooked aspects of network theory and stability analysis, and we illustrate how a failure to adequately account for historical assembly can lead to incorrect inference about the causes and consequences of ecological stability.
Date of publication 2018
Code Programming Language R

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