Ecological network analysis of traits reveals variable response capacity to stress
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionProceedings of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences. 2023, 290 (1998), . 10.1098/rspb.2023.0403
Response diversity increases the potential ‘options’ for ecological communities to respond to stress (i.e. response capacity). An indicator of community response diversity is the diversity of different traits associated with their capacity to be resistant to stress, to recover and to regulate ecosystem functions. We conducted a network analysis of traits using benthic macroinvertebrate community data from a large-scale field experiment to explore the loss of response diversity along environmental gradients. We elevated sediment nutrient concentrations (a process that occurs with eutrophication) at 24 sites (in 15 estuaries) with varying environmental conditions (water column turbidity and sediment properties). Macroinvertebrate community response capacity to nutrient stress was dependent on the baseline trait network complexity in the ambient community (i.e. non-enriched sediments). The greater the complexity of the baseline network, the less variable the network response to nutrient stress was; in contrast, more variable responses to nutrient stress occurred with simpler networks. Thus, stressors or environmental variables that shift baseline network complexity also shift the capacity for these ecosystems to respond to additional stressors. Empirical studies that explore the mechanisms responsible for loss of resilience are essential to inform our ability to predict changes in ecological states.