On the evolution of trophic position

Marvin Moosmann, Maria Cuenca-Cambronero, Stephen De Lisle, Ryan Greenway, Cameron M. Hudson, Moritz Lürig, Blake Matthews

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The trophic structure of food webs is primarily determined by the variation in trophic position among species and individuals. Temporal dynamics of food web structure are central to our understanding of energy and nutrient fluxes in changing environments, but little is known about how evolutionary processes shape trophic position variation in natural populations. We propose that trophic position, whose expression depends on both environmental and genetic determinants of the diet variation in individual consumers, is a quantitative trait that can evolve via natural selection. Such evolution can occur either when trophic position is correlated with other heritable morphological and behavioural traits under selection, or when trophic position is a target of selection, which is possible if the fitness effects of prey items are heterogeneously distributed along food chains. Recognising trophic position as an evolving trait, whose expression depends on the food web context, provides an important conceptual link between behavioural foraging theory and food web dynamics, and a useful starting point for the integration of ecological and evolutionary studies of trophic position.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2549-2562
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the members of the department for fish ecology and evolution at Eawag for their insightful input during the development of the manuscript. We are grateful to Hanna ten Brink, Catalina Chaparro Pedraza, Rishi De‐Kayne and Gaurav Baruah for their comments and feedback to improve the manuscript. MM and MDL were supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation Grants No 31003A_175614 and P2EZP3_191804, respectively. Open access funding provided by ETH‐Bereich Forschungsanstalten.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Ecology Letters published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Evolutionary Biology


  • food webs
  • intraspecific variation
  • natural selection
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • trait evolution
  • trophic position


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