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Am Nat. 1993 May;141(5):675-86. doi: 10.1086/285499.

Food web architecture and population dynamics in laboratory microcosms of protists.


In theory, food chain length and omnivory are pivotal elements of food web structure that can affect the population dynamics of species within the web. Long food chains are thought to be less stable than shorter food chains, and omnivores are thought to destabilize food webs, although populations of omnivores may be more stable than populations of nonomnivores. In three of four simple food webs assembled from bacteria and protists in laboratory microcosms, the abundance of bacterivorous protists varied more over time when the species occurred in longer versus shorter food chains. The abundance of protists attacked by omnivorous top predators was either more or less temporally variable than in webs where top predators fed only at one adjacent trophic level, depending on the particular combination of interacting species. The abundance of omnivorous top predators varied less over time than the abundance of top predators restricted to feeding only at an adjacent trophic level. Observations of increased temporal variation in prey abundance in longer food chains and low temporal variation in omnivore abundance agree broadly with several predictions of food web theory. The observation that different species in similar trophic positions can exhibit very different dynamics suggests that stability may depend on complex interactions between species-specific life-history traits and general patterns of food web architecture.


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