Success and its limits among structural models of complex food webs

Richard J. Williams, Neo D. Martinez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


1. Following the development of the relatively successful niche model, several other simple structural food web models have been proposed. These models predict the detailed structure of complex food webs given only two input parameters, the numbers of species and the number of feeding links among them. 2. The models claim different degrees of success but have not been compared consistently with each other or with the empirical data. We compared the performance of five structural models rigorously against 10 empirical food webs from a variety of aquatic and terrestrial habitats containing 25-92 species and 68-997 links. 3. All models include near-hierarchical ordering of species' consumption and have identical distributions of the number of prey of each consumer species, but differ in the extent to which species' diets are required to be contiguous and the rules used to assign feeding links. 4. The models perform similarly on a range of food-web properties, including the fraction of top, intermediate and basal species, the standard deviations of generality and connectivity and the fraction of herbivores and omnivores. 5. For other properties, including the standard deviation of vulnerability, the fraction of cannibals and species in loops, mean trophic level, path length, clustering coefficient, maximum similarity and diet discontinuity, there are significant differences in the performance of the different models. 6. While the empirical data do not support the niche model's assumption of diet contiguity, models which relax this assumption all have worse overall performance than the niche model. All the models under-estimate severely the fraction of species that are herbivores and exhibit other important failures that need to be addressed in future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)512-519
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Ecological networks
  • Intervality
  • Network structure
  • Predator-prey network

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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