Species interact with other organisms in complex communities. The
characteristics and dynamics of communities can be analytically explored
by using network analysis. The implications of space on the ecological
network functioning has only recently been fully considered and virtually no
studies have examined these in natural communities.
In this proposal, I aim to analyse in depth a spatially distributed food web
network by combining empirical studies with theoretical modelling. To this
end, I will examine a unique community of arthropods associated with ants,
so-called myrmecophiles, in a spatial context. Red wood ant mounds
support a complex food web of interacting myrmecophiles, and local food
webs are connected in space by myrmecophile dispersal. Research
questions will be addressed with three complementary work packages.
First, I will survey in high-resolution spatial variation in the myrmecophile
food web network across heterogeneously distributed nests of red wood
ants. Next, I will test to which degree variation in dispersal and host
detection capabilities of the different myrmecophiles depends on speciesspecific
life traits or are conditional to local nest quality and intensity of local
competition. Finally, the obtained empirical data will be used to
parameterize a spatial network model. Changes in the spatial food web
functioning will be theoretically explored under conditions of varying nest
availability, changes in productivity, and differences in regional
metacommunity richness. Overall, studying myrmecophile communities in a
spatial context will propel our understanding of the evolutionary and
ecological dynamics in complex communities.