Foundation species enhance food web complexity through non-trophic facilitation

Annieke C.W. Borst*, Wilco C.E.P. Verberk, Christine Angelini, Jildou Schotanus, Jan Willem Wolters, Marjolijn J.A. Christianen, Els M. van der Zee, Marlous Derksen-Hooijberg, Tjisse van der Heide

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Food webs are an integral part of every ecosystem on the planet, yet understanding the mechanisms shaping these complex networks remains a major challenge. Recently, several studies suggested that non-trophic species interactions such as habitat modification and mutualisms can be important determinants of food web structure. However, it remains unclear whether these findings generalize across ecosystems, and whether non-trophic interactions affect food webs randomly, or affect specific trophic levels or functional groups. Here, we combine analyses of 58 food webs from seven terrestrial, freshwater and coastal systems to test (1) the general hypothesis that non-trophic facilitation by habitat-forming foundation species enhances food web complexity, and (2) whether these enhancements have either random or targeted effects on particular trophic levels, functional groups, and linkages throughout the food web. Our empirical results demonstrate that foundation species consistently enhance food web complexity in all seven ecosystems. Further analyses reveal that 15 out of 19 food web properties can be well-approximated by assuming that foundation species randomly facilitate species throughout the trophic network. However, basal species are less strongly, and carnivores are more strongly facilitated in foundation species’ food webs than predicted based on random facilitation, resulting in a higher mean trophic level and a longer average chain length. Overall, we conclude that foundation species strongly enhance food web complexity through non-trophic facilitation of species across the entire trophic network. We therefore suggest that the structure and stability of food webs often depends critically on non-trophic facilitation by foundation species.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0199152
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2018


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