Cascading extinctions and community collapse in model food webs

Jennifer A. Dunne and Richard J. Williams


Species loss in ecosystems can lead to secondary extinctions as a result of consumer-resource relationships and other species interactions. We compare levels of secondary extinctions in communities generated by four structural food-web models and a fifth null model in response to sequential primary species removals. We focus on various aspects of food-web structural integrity including robustness, community collapse and threshold periods, and how these features relate to assumptions underlying different models, different species loss sequences and simple measures of diversity and complexity. Hierarchical feeding, a fundamental characteristic of food-web structure, appears to impose a cost in terms of robustness and other aspects of structural integrity. However, exponential-type link distributions, also characteristic of more realistic models, generally confer greater structural robustness than the less skewed link distributions of less realistic models. In most cases for the more realistic models, increased robustness and decreased levels of web collapse are associated with increased diversity, measured as species richness , and increased complexity, measured as connectance . These and other results, including a surprising sensitivity of more realistic model food webs to loss of species with few links to other species, are compared with prior work based on empirical food-web data.


Publication typeArticle
Published inPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
> Publications > Cascading extinctions and community collapse in model food webs