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The indirect paths to cascading effects of extinctions in mutualistic networks

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Biodiversity loss is a hallmark of our times, but predicting its consequences is challenging. Ecological interactions form complex networks with multiple direct and indirect paths through which the impacts of an extinction may propagate. Here we show that accounting for these multiple paths connecting species is necessary to predict how extinctions affect the integrity of ecological networks. Using an approach initially developed for the study of information flow, we estimate indirect effects in plant-pollinator networks and find that even those species with several direct interactions may have much of their influence over others through long indirect paths. Next, we perform extinction simulations in those networks and show that although traditional connectivity metrics fail in the prediction of coextinction patterns, accounting for indirect interaction paths allows predicting species' vulnerability to the cascading effects of an extinction event. Embracing the structural complexity of ecological systems contributes towards a more predictive ecology, which is of paramount importance amid the current biodiversity crisis.

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