Five fundamental ways in which complex food webs may spiral out of control

J.J. Lever*, Egbert H. van Nes, Marten Scheffer, Jordi Bascompte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Theory suggests that increasingly long, negative feedback loops of many interacting species may destabilize food webs as complexity increases. Less attention has, however, been paid to the specific ways in which these delayed negative feedbacks’ may affect the response of complex ecosystems to global environmental change. Here, we describe five fundamental ways in which these feedbacks might pave the way for abrupt, large-scale transitions and species losses. By combining topological and bioenergetic models, we then proceed by showing that the likelihood of such transitions increases with the number of interacting species and/or when the combined effects of stabilizing network patterns approach the minimum required for stable coexistence. Our findings thus shift the question from the classical question of what makes complex, unaltered ecosystems stable to whether the effects of, known and unknown, stabilizing food-web patterns are sufficient to prevent abrupt, large-scale transitions under global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1765-1779
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number10
Early online date16 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • complexity
  • critical transitions
  • delayed negative feedbacks
  • ecological networks
  • food webs
  • global environmental change
  • resilience
  • stability


Dive into the research topics of 'Five fundamental ways in which complex food webs may spiral out of control'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this