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Analysing ecological networks of species interactions

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Network approaches to ecological questions have been increasingly used, particularly in recent decades. The abstraction of ecological systems - such as communities - through networks of interactions between their components indeed provides a way to summarize this information with single objects. The methodological framework derived from graph theory also provides numerous approaches and measures to analyze these objects and can offer new perspectives on established ecological theories as well as tools to address new challenges. However, prior to using these methods to test ecological hypotheses, it is necessary that we understand, adapt, and use them in ways that both allow us to deliver their full potential and account for their limitations. Here, we attempt to increase the accessibility of network approaches by providing a review of the tools that have been developed so far, with - what we believe to be - their appropriate uses and potential limitations. This is not an exhaustive review of all methods and metrics, but rather, an overview of tools that are robust, informative, and ecologically sound. After providing a brief presentation of species interaction networks and how to build them in order to summarize ecological information of different types, we then classify methods and metrics by the types of ecological questions that they can be used to answer from global to local scales, including methods for hypothesis testing and future perspectives. Specifically, we show how the organization of species interactions in a community yields different network structures (e.g., more or less dense, modular or nested), how different measures can be used to describe and quantify these emerging structures, and how to compare communities based on these differences in structures. Within networks, we illustrate metrics that can be used to describe and compare the functional and dynamic roles of species based on their position in the network and the organization of their interactions as well as associated new methods to test the significance of these results. Lastly, we describe potential fruitful avenues for new methodological developments to address novel ecological questions.

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