The biggest losers: Habitat isolation deconstructs complex food webs from top to bottom

Johanna Häußler, Remo Ryser, Markus Stark, Ulrich Brose, Björn C. Rall, and Christian Guill

Habitat fragmentation is threatening global biodiversity. To date, there is only limited understanding of how habitat fragmentation or any alteration to the spatial structure of a landscape in general, affects species diversity within complex ecological networks such as food webs. Here, we present a dynamic and spatially-explicit food web model which integrates complex food web dynamics at the local scale and species-specific dispersal dynamics at the landscape scale, allowing us to study the interplay of local and spatial processes in metacommunities. We explore how habitat fragmentation, defined as a decrease of habitat availability and an increase of habitat isolation, affects the species diversity patterns of complex food webs (α-, β-, γ-diversity), and specifically test whether there is a trophic dependency in the effect of habitat fragmentation on species diversity. In our model, habitat isolation is the main driver causing species loss and diversity decline. Our results emphasise that large-bodied consumer species at high trophic positions go extinct faster than smaller species at lower trophic levels, despite being superior dispersers that connect fragmented landscape better. We attribute the loss of top species to a combined effect of higher biomass loss during dispersal with increasing habitat isolation in general, and the associated energy limitation in highly fragmented landscapes, preventing higher trophic levels to persist. To maintain trophic-complex and species-rich communities calls for effective conservation planning which considers the interdependence of trophic and spatial dynamics as well as the spatial context of a landscape and its energy availability.

(eprint link)
doi: 10.1101/439190
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