Modelling coevolution in multispecies communities

Guido Caldarelli, Paul G. Higgs, Alan J. McKane

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    We introduce the Webworld model, which links together the ecological modelling of food web structure with the evolutionary modelling of speciation and extinction events. The model describes dynamics of ecological communities on an evolutionary time-scale. Species are defined as sets of characteristic features, and these features are used to determine interaction scores between species. A simple rule is used to transfer resources from the external environment through the food web to each of the species, and to determine mean population sizes. A time step in the model represents a speciation event. A new species is added with features similar to those of one of the existing species and a new food web structure is then calculated. The new species may (i) add stably to the web, (ii) become extinct immediately because it is poorly adapted, or (iii) cause one or more other species to become extinct due to competition for resources. We measure various properties of the model webs and compare these with data on real food webs. These properties include the proportions of basal, intermediate and top species, the number of links per species and the number of trophic levels. We also study the evolutionary dynamics of the model ecosystem by following the fluctuations in the total number of species in the web. Extinction avalanches occur when novel organisms arise which are significantly better adapted than existing ones. We discuss these results in relation to the observed extinction events in the fossil record, and to the theory of self-organized criticality.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)345-358
    Number of pages13
    JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 1998


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