The consequences of mass mortality events for the structure and dynamics of biological communities
Mass mortality events (MMEs) are rapidly occurring, substantial population losses that transpire within a short time interval relative to the generation time of the affected organism. Previous work has established that MMEs appear to be increasing in frequency and magnitude; however, currently, there is little understanding of the consequences of MMEs for biological communities. Here, we use theory and empirical data from observed MMEs to understand how MMEs impact the structure and dynamics of communities. To do so, we build upon existing resource pulse and trophic cascade theory to show that MMEs both share similarities and diverge from these ecological phenomena, producing distinct short- and long-term impacts by jointly altering the effects of species interactions across trophic levels and providing an influx of resources from decaying biomass. Second, we investigate how the magnitude of MMEs, trophic level of the impacted species, overall food web structure and ecosystem type may mediate the resulting ecological response. Third, we compare the understanding gained by our models to existing observational data on MMEs. Our synthesis, offers an empirical path forward for understanding MMEs through experimentation and improved observational data collection. While complex, resolving the consequences of MMEs should be a high research priority due to their role in determining how ecological systems respond to environmental change driven by rare events.
Fey, SB; Gibert, JP; Siepielski, AM
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