deRoos, Andre M.

Natural ecological communities are diverse, complex, and often surprisingly stable, but the mechanisms underlying their stability remain a theoretical enigma. Interactions such as competition and predation presumably structure communities, yet theory predicts that complex communities are stable only when species growth rates are mostly limited by intraspecific self-regulation rather than by interactions with resources, competitors, and predators. Current theory, however, considers only the network topology of population-level interactions between species and ignores within population differences, such as between juvenile and adult individuals. Here, using model simulations and analysis, I show that including commonly observed differences in vulnerability to predation and foraging efficiency between juvenile and adult individuals results in up to 10 times larger, more complex communities than observed in simulations without population stage structure. These diverse communities are stable or fluctuate with limited amplitude, although in the model only a single basal species is self-regulated, and the population-level interaction network is highly connected. Analysis of the species interaction matrix predicts the simulated communities to be unstable but for the interaction with the population-structure subsystem, which completely cancels out these instabilities through dynamic changes in population stage structure. Common differences between juveniles and adults and fluctuations in their relative abundance may hence have a decisive influence on the stability of complex natural communities and their vulnerability when environmental conditions change. To explain community persistence, it may not be sufficient to consider only the network of interactions between the constituting species.