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How to predict community responses to perturbations in the face of imperfect knowledge and network complexity

December 1, 2013

Recent attempts to predict the response of large food webs to perturbations have revealed that in larger systems increasingly precise information on the elements of the system is required. Thus, the effort needed for good predictions grows quickly with the system's complexity. Here, we show that not all elements need to be measured equally well, suggesting that a more efficient allocation of effort is possible. We develop an iterative technique for determining an efficient measurement strategy. In model food webs, we find that it is most important to precisely measure the mortality and predation rates of long-lived, generalist, top predators. Prioritizing the study of such species will make it easier to understand the response of complex food webs to perturbations.