Elton Prize 2021: winner announced

We are delighted to announce Kate P. Maia as the 2021 winner of our Elton Prize early career researcher award for the article Interaction generalisation and demographic feedbacks drive the resilience of plant–insect networks to extinctions.
In this post, Kate shares her #StoryBehindThePaper.

The research

Ecological communities can be depicted as networks in which species are connected by interactions. These ecological networks have far-from-random structures, which may not only hide information about the natural history of the system represented but can also affect how resistant ecological communities are to different types of perturbations.

Using computer simulations to investigate how resistant plant-pollinator and plant-herbivore networks are to the loss of species, we sought to understand which properties of these systems affect their resistance.

We found that, because plant-pollinator interactions benefit both plants and insects – as opposed to herbivory, which only benefits insects – pollination networks undergo long and frequent co-extinction cascades and are less resistant than herbivory networks.

On the other hand, pollination networks benefit from containing species that have many interactions, as well as from their structure. This gives them interaction flexibility, allowing pollinators to rewire their interactions to new plants and hence escape co-extinction. Whereas the structure of herbivory networks limits the interaction flexibility of insect herbivores.

We have thus shown how, for two types of high-biodiversity plant-insect assemblages, their natural history and network structures contribute to their resilience to extinctions.

Kate’s experience

I very much enjoyed the coding challenge – since this was my first experience with this level of modelling – and designing the different scenarios for each of the questions.

One surprising discovery in this research was finding that rewiring can have a negative (even if small) effect on the robustness of antagonistic networks with theoretical structures. Because we didn’t find the same negative effect for herbivory networks, this suggests that the empiric structure of antagonistic systems could act as a buffer against co-extinction cascades. 

Read the winning paper and all of those shortlisted for the 2021 award (free for a limited time) in this Virtual Issue.

This work marked a milestone in Kate’s PhD thesis, which was awarded in January 2019 by the University of Bristol, UK. At the time of the manuscript’s submission, Kate was a second-year postdoc at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and, even if working on different systems and approaches, has broadly continued with this research. She is currently looking for different structural patterns across networks of several interaction types and exploring how they influence the spread of effects across species.

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