Trophic network structure emerges through antagonistic coevolution in temporally varying environments

Timothée Poisot, Peter H. Thrall, Michael E. Hochberg


Understanding the mechanisms underlying ecological specialization is central to our understanding of community ecology and evolution. Although theoretical work has investigated how variable environments may affect specialization in single species, little is known about how such variation impacts bipartite network structure in antagonistically coevolving systems. Here, we develop and analyse a general model of victim–enemy coevolution that explicitly includes resource and population dynamics. We investigate how temporal environmental heterogeneity affects the evolution of specialization and associated community structure. Environmental productivity influences victim investment in resistance, which will shape patterns of specialization through its regulating effect on enemy investment in infectivity. We also investigate the epidemiological consequences of environmental variability and show that enemy population density is maximized for intermediate lengths of productive seasons, which corresponds to situations where enemies can evolve higher infectivity than victims can evolve defence. We discuss our results in the light of empirical studies, and further highlight ways in which our model applies to a range of natural systems.

  • Received April 21, 2011.
  • Accepted May 18, 2011.
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