Ecol Lett. 2023 Sep 11. doi: 10.1111/ele.14305. Online ahead of print.
Ecologists have long sought to understand variation in food chain length (FCL) among natural ecosystems. Various drivers of FCL, including ecosystem size, resource productivity and disturbance, have been hypothesised. However, when results are aggregated across existing empirical studies from aquatic ecosystems, we observe mixed FCL responses to these drivers. To understand this variability, we develop a unified competition-colonisation framework for complex food webs incorporating all of these drivers. With competition-colonisation tradeoffs among basal species, our model predicts that increasing ecosystem size generally results in a monotonic increase in FCL, while FCL displays non-linear, oscillatory responses to resource productivity or disturbance in large ecosystems featuring little disturbance or high productivity. Interestingly, such complex responses mirror patterns in empirical data. Therefore, this study offers a novel mechanistic explanation for observed variations in aquatic FCL driven by multiple environmental factors.