A review of species role concepts in food webs

Alyssa R. Cirtwill, Giulio Valentino Dalla Riva, Marilia P. Gaiarsa, Malyon D. Bimler, E. Fernando Cagua, Camille Coux, D. Matthias Dehling

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


Many different concepts have been used to describe species’ roles in food webs (i.e., the ways in which species participate in their communities as consumers and resources). As each concept focuses on a different aspect of food-web structure, it can be difficult to relate these concepts to each other and to other aspects of ecology. Here we use the Eltonian niche as an overarching framework, within which we summarize several commonly-used role concepts (degree, trophic level, motif roles, and centrality). We focus mainly on the topological versions of these concepts but, where dynamical versions of a role concept exist, we acknowledge these as well. Our aim is to highlight areas of overlap and ambiguity between different role concepts and to describe how these roles can be used to group species according to different strategies (i.e., equivalence and functional roles). The existence of “gray areas” between role concepts make it essential for authors to carefully consider both which role concept(s) are most appropriate for the analyses they wish to conduct and what aspect of species’ niches (if any) they wish to address. The ecological meaning of differences between species’ roles can change dramatically depending on which role concept(s) are used.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00093
Number of pages14
JournalFood Webs
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Eltonian niche
  • Network structure

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