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Increasing importance of niche versus neutral processes in the assembly of plant–herbivore networks during succession

Cite this dataset

Bosc, Christopher; Pauw, Anton (2021). Increasing importance of niche versus neutral processes in the assembly of plant–herbivore networks during succession [Dataset]. Dryad.


Recent studies suggest that the assembly of trophic interaction networks is the result of both niche (deterministic and selective) and neutral (stochastic) processes, but we know little about their relative importance. Succession following disturbance offers a good opportunity to address this question. Studies of single-trophic guilds suggest that, shortly after a disturbance, such as a fire, neutral assembly processes (e.g. colonisation events) dominate whereas niche processes (selection) become more and more important as succession proceeds. Building on these observations, we predict similar changes in interaction networks during succession, with a shift from stochastic toward selective interactions. To test this, we studied succession of plant–herbivorous insect networks in South Africa after a fire. We sampled a total of 385 herbivorous arthropod species and 92 plant species. For different successional stages and spatial grain sizes, we used network descriptors to estimate plant–herbivore specificity and partner fidelity of plant and herbivore species across networks (i.e. localities). We compared the observed network descriptors to neutral models, and then differentiated selective species (associated with similar partner species in different networks) from neutral species (associated at random with their partners). Our results suggest that specialisation, partner fidelity and the proportion of selective species of plants and herbivores increased with succession, which is consistent with the hypothesis that niche-based processes prevail over neutral processes as succession proceeds. However, in all the successional stages, the majority of species were neutral species, which pinpoints the importance of opportunistic interactions in the assembly of trophic networks.  


1 / Interaction network matrices = Number of herbivorous insect individuals collected on different plant species. 

Location: Jonkershoek valley, Western Cape, South Africa. 

Samplings were performed after a fire at four different times during succession: August 2015, December 2015, August 2016 and December 2016.

Interaction matrices were created for three different spatial grain sizes: for each successional stage, we obtained 24 different interaction matrices for 5 m × 5 m quadrats (four for each site), six different interaction matrices for 20 m × 20 m sites and one interaction matrix for the whole valley.


2 / Photographs of the arthropods collected on the vegetation during these samplings. 

If further information is needed, please contact Christopher Bosc:


National Research Foundation, Award: 91507

National Geographic, Award: 9563-14