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Ecological network structure in response to community assembly processes over evolutionary time

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The dynamical structure of ecological communities results from interactions among taxa that change with shifts in species composition in space and time. However, our ability to study the interplay of ecological and evolutionary processes on community assembly remains relatively unexplored due to the difficulty of measuring community structure over long temporal scales. Here, we made use of a geological chronosequence across the Hawaiian Islands, representing 50 years to 4.15 million years of ecosystem development, to sample 11 communities of arthropods and their associated plant taxa using semi-quantitative DNA metabarcoding. We then examined how ecological communities changed with community age by calculating quantitative network statistics for bipartite networks of arthropod-plant associations. The average number of interactions per species (linkage density), ratio of plant to arthropod species (vulnerability), and uniformity of energy flow (interaction evenness) increased significantly in concert with community age. The index of specialization H2’ has a curvilinear relationship with community age. Our analyses suggest that younger communities are characterized by fewer but stronger interactions, while biotic associations become more even and diverse as communities mature. These shifts in structure became especially prominent on East Maui (~0.5 my) and older volcanos, after enough time had elapsed for adaptation and specialization to act on populations in situ. Such natural progression of specialization during community assembly is likely impeded by the rapid infiltration of non-native species, with special risk to younger or more recently disturbed communities that are composed of fewer specialized relationships.

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