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The architecture of mutualistic networks as an evolutionary spandrel

Mutualistic networks have been shown to involve complex patterns of interactions among animal and plant species, including a widespread presence of nestedness. The nested structure of these webs seems to be positively correlated with higher diversity and resilience. Moreover, these webs exhibit marked measurable structural patterns, including broad distributions of connectivity, strongly asymmetrical interactions and hierarchical organization. Hierarchical organization is an especially interesting property, since it is positively correlated with biodiversity and network resilience, thus suggesting potential selection processes favouring the observed web organization.

However, here we show that all these structural quantitative patterns—and nestedness in particular—can be properly explained by means of a very simple dynamical model of speciation and divergence with no selection-driven coevolution of traits. The agreement between observed and modelled networks suggests that the patterns displayed by real mutualistic webs might actually represent evolutionary spandrels.


S. Valverde, J. Piñero, B. Corominas-Murtra, J. Montoya, L. Joppa, R. Solé, The architecture of mutualistic networks as an evolutionary spandrel, Nature Ecology & Evolution 2 (2018) 94–99

Ricard Solé

Bernat Corominas-Murtra

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