Architecture of Marine Food Webs: To Be or Not Be a ‘Small-World’


The search for general properties in network structure has been a central issue for food web studies in recent years. One such property is the small-world topology that combines a high clustering and a small distance between nodes of the network. This property may increase food web resilience but make them more sensitive to the extinction of connected species. Food web theory has been developed principally from freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, largely omitting marine habitats. If theory needs to be modified to accommodate observations from marine ecosystems, based on major differences in several topological characteristics is still on debate. Here we investigated if the small-world topology is a common structural pattern in marine food webs. We developed a novel, simple and statistically rigorous method to examine the largest set of complex marine food webs to date. More than half of the analyzed marine networks exhibited a similar or lower characteristic path length than the random expectation, whereas 39% of the webs presented a significantly higher clustering than its random counterpart. Our method proved that 5 out of 28 networks fulfilled both features of the small-world topology: short path length and high clustering. This work represents the first rigorous analysis of the small-world topology and its associated features in high-quality marine networks. We conclude that such topology is a structural pattern that is not maximized in marine food webs; thus it is probably not an effective model to study robustness, stability and feasibility of marine ecosystems.

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