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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Oct 23;104(43):16976-81. Epub 2007 Oct 15.

Fluctuations in density of an outbreak species drive diversity cascades in food webs.

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  • 1Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Atlantic Forestry Centre, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.


Patterns in food-web structure have frequently been examined in static food webs, but few studies have attempted to delineate patterns that materialize in food webs under nonequilibrium conditions. Here, using one of nature's classical nonequilibrium systems as the food-web database, we test the major assumptions of recent advances in food-web theory. We show that a complex web of interactions between insect herbivores and their natural enemies displays significant architectural flexibility over a large fluctuation in the natural abundance of the major herbivore, the spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana). Importantly, this flexibility operates precisely in the manner predicted by recent foraging-based food-web theories: higher-order mobile generalists respond rapidly in time and space by converging on areas of increasing prey abundance. This "birdfeeder effect" operates such that increasing budworm densities correspond to a cascade of increasing diversity and food-web complexity. Thus, by integrating foraging theory with food-web ecology and analyzing a long-term, natural data set coupled with manipulative field experiments, we are able to show that food-web structure varies in a predictable manner. Furthermore, both recent food-web theory and longstanding foraging theory suggest that this very same food-web flexibility ought to be a potent stabilizing mechanism. Interestingly, we find that this food-web flexibility tends to be greater in heterogeneous than in homogeneous forest plots. Because our results provide a plausible mechanism for boreal forest effects on populations of forest insect pests, they have implications for forest and pest management practices.

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