Phenotypic variation explains food web structural patterns.
Food webs (i.e., networks of species and their feeding interactions) share multiple structural features across ecosystems. The factors explaining such similarities are still debated, and the role played by most organismal traits and their intraspecific variation is unknown. Here, we assess how variation in traits controlling predator-prey interactions (e.g., body size) affects food web structure. We show that larger phenotypic variation increases connectivity among predators and their prey as well as total food intake rate. For predators able to eat only a few species (i.e., specialists), low phenotypic variation maximizes intake rates, while the opposite is true for consumers with broader diets (i.e., generalists). We also show that variation sets predator trophic level by determining interaction strengths with prey at different trophic levels. Merging these results, we make two general predictions about the structure of food webs: (i
) trophic level should increase with predator connectivity, and (ii
) interaction strengths should decrease with prey trophic level. We confirm these predictions empirically using a global dataset of well-resolved food webs. Our results provide understanding of the processes structuring food webs that include functional traits and their naturally occurring variation.
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