What sort of network is the coral reef food web? In other words, how are the links or interactions between nodes in a food web distributed? Food webs have been modelled variously as everything from random (Poisson) networks to networks based on exponential, power law or mixed distributions, with or without hierarchical structure. Empirical measures suggest that link distributions in real world food webs follow exponential or power law distributions, perhaps a mixture of both (differentiated by scale). One of my worries with those measures is that they are based on food webs of varying sizes, and more importantly, levels of taxonomic and ecological resolution. So, for example, how much does it matter if your food web covers only a small part of the community’s taxonomic diversity, or only part of the trophic diversity? What about the level of aggregation of species into more inclusive groups? The high resolution of the coral food web presents an opportunity to address some of these questions, and here’s the first one: How are trophic in-links distributed at the guild level? Recall that guilds here are groups of species with potentially the same prey and predators. I say potentially, for while we have very specific trophic data for some species, e.g. heavily studied fish, data are less certain for many smaller or less well known species. Still, there are 265 guilds in this dataset, and 4,756 links (see previous post). The histogram is a basic frequency histogram of the number of links per guild. As predicted on the basis of previously studied food webs, the distribution is a (right-skewed) decay distribution, with a greater number of species possessing fewer prey, i.e. being relative specialists, and a few species having a broad repetoire of prey, i.e. relative generalists. The extreme generalists (to the right or tail of the distribution) are all large sharks, the most extreme being the tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier. These species range from microscopic, single-celled dinoflagellates to large carcharhinid sharks!
What type of distribution is this? A simple logarithmic transform of the data is shown in the second figure, and regression of the data yields the following function: y = 17238x^-1.9496 (r-squared=0.95). The significant and extremely good fit of a linear function to the transformed data suggests that the underlying link distribution is a power law distribution of the form , where is the link probability, is the number of prey available, and is the power law exponent. An exponent of ~1.95 is tantalizingly close to other empirical measures. Even more exciting, for me at least, is the fact that we have predicted on the basis of previous work that power law exponents that promote resistance or robustness to secondary extinctions should lie in the range 2-2.5. That work was based on terrestrial food webs from the Late Permian, 250+ million years ago!