What’s in a tide pool? Just as much food web network complexity as in large open ecosystems

by Vanessa Mendonça, Carolina Madeira, Marta Dias, Fanny Vermandele, Philippe Archambault, Awantha Dissanayake, João Canning-Clode, Augusto A. V. Flores, Ana Silva, Catarina Vinagre

Understanding the fundamental laws that govern complex food web networks over large ecosystems presents high costs and oftentimes unsurmountable logistical challenges. This way, it is crucial to find smaller systems that can be used as proxy food webs. Intertidal rock pool environments harbour particularly high biodiversity over small areas. This study aimed to analyse their food web networks to investigate their potential as proxies of larger ecosystems for food web networks research. Highly resolved food webs were compiled for 116 intertidal rock pools from cold, temperate, subtropical and tropical regions, to ensure a wide representation of environmental variability. The network properties of these food webs were compared to that of estuaries, lakes and rivers, as well as marine and terrestrial ecosystems (46 previously published complex food webs). The intertidal rock pool food webs analysed presented properties that were in the same range as the previously published food webs. The niche model predictive success was remarkably high (73–88%) and similar to that previously found for much larger marine and terrestrial food webs. By using a large-scale sampling effort covering 116 intertidal rock pools in several biogeographic regions, this study showed, for the first time, that intertidal rock pools encompass food webs that share fundamental organizational characteristics with food webs from markedly different, larger, open and abiotically stable ecosystems. As small, self-contained habitats, intertidal rock pools are particularly tractable systems and therefore a large number of food webs can be examined with relatively low sampling effort. This study shows, for the first time that they can be useful models for the understanding of universal processes that regulate the complex network organization of food webs, which are harder or impossible to investigate in larger, open ecosystems, due to high costs and logistical difficulties.

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