Functional links and robustness in food webs

Stefano Allesina, Antonio Bodini, Mercedes Pascual

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The robustness of ecosystems to species losses is a central question in ecology, given the current pace of extinctions and the many species threatened by human impacts, including habitat destruction and climate change. Robustness from the perspective of secondary extinctions has been addressed in the context of food webs to consider the complex network of species interactions that underlie responses to perturbations. In-silico removal experiments have examined the structural properties of food webs that enhance or hamper the robustness of ecosystems to species losses, with a focus on the role of hubs, the most connected species. Here we take a different approach and focus on the role of the connections themselves. We show that trophic links can be divided into functional and redundant based on their contribution to robustness. The analysis of empirical webs shows that hubs are not necessarily the most important species as they may hold many redundant links. Furthermore, the fraction of functional connections is high and constant across systems regardless of size and interconnectedness. The main consequence of this scaling pattern is that ecosystem robustness can be considerably reduced by species extinctions even when these do not result in any secondary extinctions. This introduces the possibility of tipping points in the collapse of ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1701-1709
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1524
StatePublished - Jun 27 2009


  • Complexity
  • Ecological networks
  • Extinctions
  • Food webs
  • Robustness
  • Stability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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