Bridging theories for ecosystem stability through structural sensitivity analysis of ecological models in equilibrium
Ecologists are challenged by the need to bridge and synthesize different approaches and theories to obtain a coherent understanding of ecosystems in a changing world. Both food web theory and regime shift theory shine light on mechanisms that confer stability to ecosystems, but from different angles. Empirical food web models are developed to analyze how equilibria in real multi-trophic ecosystems are shaped by species interactions, and often include linear functional response terms for simple estimation of interaction strengths from observations. Models of regime shifts focus on qualitative changes of equilibrium points in a slowly changing environment, and typically include non-linear functional response terms. Currently, it is unclear how the stability of an empirical food web model, expressed as the rate of system recovery after a small perturbation, relates to the vulnerability of the ecosystem to collapse.
Here, we conduct structural sensitivity analyses of classical consumer-resource models in equilibrium along an environmental gradient. Specifically, we change non-proportional interaction terms into proportional ones, while maintaining the equilibrium biomass densities and material flux rates, to analyze how alternative model formulations shape the stability properties of the equilibria. The results reveal no consistent relationship between the stability of the original models and the proportionalized versions, even though they describe the same biomass values and material flows. We use these findings to critically discuss whether stability analysis of observed equilibria by empirical food web models can provide insight into regime shift dynamics, and highlight the challenge of bridging alternative modelling approaches in ecology and beyond.
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