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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Oct 1;99(20):12913-6. Epub 2002 Sep 16.

Two degrees of separation in complex food webs.

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  • 1Romberg Tiburon Center and Department of Biology, San Francisco State University, 3150 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, CA 94920, USA.


Feeding relationships can cause invasions, extirpations, and population fluctuations of a species to dramatically affect other species within a variety of natural habitats. Empirical evidence suggests that such strong effects rarely propagate through food webs more than three links away from the initial perturbation. However, the size of these spheres of potential influence within complex communities is generally unknown. Here, we show for that species within large communities from a variety of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are on average two links apart, with >95% of species typically within three links of each other. Species are drawn even closer as network complexity and, more unexpectedly, species richness increase. Our findings are based on seven of the largest and most complex food webs available as well as a food-web model that extends the generality of the empirical results. These results indicate that the dynamics of species within ecosystems may be more highly interconnected and that biodiversity loss and species invasions may affect more species than previously thought.

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