Linking structure and function in food webs: maximization of different ecological functions generates distinct food web structures

Jian D. L. Yen, Reniel B. Cabral, Mauricio Cantor, Ian Hatton, Susanne Kortsch, Joana Patrício, Masato Yamamichi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Trophic interactions are central to ecosystem functioning, but the link between food web structure and ecosystem functioning remains obscure. Regularities (i.e. consistent patterns) in food web structure suggest the possibility of regularities in ecosystem functioning, which might be used to relate structure to function. We introduce a novel, genetic algorithm approach to simulate food webs with maximized throughput (a proxy for ecosystem functioning) and compare the structure of these simulated food webs to real empirical food webs using common metrics of food web structure. We repeat this analysis using robustness to secondary extinctions (a proxy for ecosystem resilience) instead of throughput to determine the relative contributions of ecosystem functioning and ecosystem resilience to food web structure. Simulated food webs that maximized robustness were similar to real food webs when connectance (i.e. levels of interaction across the food web) was high, but this result did not extend to food webs with low connectance. Simulated food webs that maximized throughput or a combination of throughput and robustness were not similar to any real food webs. Simulated maximum-throughput food webs differed markedly from maximum-robustness food webs, which suggests that maximizing different ecological functions can generate distinct food web structures. Based on our results, food web structure would appear to have a stronger relationship with ecosystem resilience than with ecosystem throughput. Our genetic algorithm approach is general and is well suited to large, realistically complex food webs. Genetic algorithms can incorporate constraints on structure and can generate outputs that can be compared directly to empirical data. Our method can be used to explore a range of maximization or minimization hypotheses, providing new perspectives on the links between structure and function in ecological systems.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)537–547
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Publication statusPublished - 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • ecological networks
  • ecosystem resilience
  • secondary extinctions
  • total system throughput
  • ecosystem functioning

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