Luís A. Nunes Amaral

co-Director, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems
Professor of Chemical & Biological Engineering
Professor of Physics & Astronomy (by courtesy)
Professor of Medicine (by courtesy)

Chemical & Biological Engineering
2145 Sheridan Road (Room E136)
EvanstonIL 60208US
Phone: (847) 491-7850


Food webs aim to provide a thorough representation of the trophic interactions found in an ecosystem. The complexity of empirical food webs, however, is leading many ecologists to focus dynamic ecosystem studies on smaller microcosm or mesocosm studies based upon community modules, which comprise three to five species and the interactions likely to have ecological relevance. We provide here a structural counterpart to community modules. We investigate food-web 'motifs' which are n-species connected subgraphs found within the food web. Remarkably, we find that the over- and under- representation of three-species motifs in empirical food webs can be understood through comparison to a static food-web model, the niche model. Our result conclusively demonstrates that predation upon species with some 'characteristic' niche value is the prey selection mechanism consistent with the structural properties of empirical food webs.