Yeakel, Justin D.; Mathias M. Pires; Marcis A. M. de Aguiar; James L. O’Donnell; Paulo R. Guimarães, Jr.; Dominique Gravel and Thilo Gross

The complexity of an ecological community can be distilled into a network, where diverse interactions connect species in a web of dependencies. Species interact directly with each other and indirectly through environmental effects, however to our knowledge the role of these ecosystem engineers has not been considered in ecological network models. Here we explore the dynamics of ecosystem assembly, where species colonization and extinction depends on the constraints imposed by trophic, service, and engineering dependencies. We show that our assembly model reproduces many key features of ecological systems, such as the role of generalists during assembly, realistic maximum trophic levels, and increased nestedness with mutualistic interactions. We find that ecosystem engineering has large and nonlinear effects on extinction rates. While small numbers of engineers reduce stability by increasing primary extinctions, larger numbers of engineers increase stability by reducing primary extinctions and extinction cascade magnitude. Our results suggest that ecological engineers may enhance community diversity while increasing persistence by facilitating colonization and limiting competitive exclusion. The dynamics of ecological communities depends on interactions between species as well as those between species and their environment, however the effects of the latter are poorly understood. Here, Yeakel et al. reveal how species that modify their environment (ecosystem engineers) impact community dynamics and the risk of extinction.