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“Why are there so many species on earth?” It is one of the most fundamental questions in understanding life on earth. The question becomes even more prominent when we realise that it can be posed for nearly any ecosystem on earth.
In the middle of the last century, community perspectives developed to approach this question as exemplified by the contributions of Robert MacArthur. He argued that when a species is part of a species-rich community, it is more able to withstand environmental change and disturbance because of buffering effects through the complex network of biological interactions with other species in the community. The idea that being part of a species-rich ecological network enhances species survival gained enormous scientific momentum through theoretical (e.g., Robert May) and empirical (e.g., Robert Paine) approaches. Most of these studies focused on special descriptions of ecological networks, i.e., food webs. More recently, however, the focus has shifted to the role of other kinds of interactions, such as competition, facilitation and parasitism in ecological networks.
Studying ecological networks is not only crucial for understanding population dynamics and persistence, but also ecosystem processes like energy and nutrient cycling, the spread of pests and diseases, and in this way human welfare. In the present Current Themes in Ecology symposium, Networks in Ecology, we will address a wide variety in novel approaches to understand the functioning of ecological networks and the consequences for biological diversity and ecosystem dynamics.