Seeing the forest for the trees: Putting multilayer networks to work for community ecology

Matthew C. Hutchinson, Bernat Bramon Mora, Shai Pilosof, Allison K. Barner, Sonia Kéfi, Elisa Thébault, Pedro Jordano, Daniel B. Stouffer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


A framework for the description and analysis of multilayer networks is established in statistical physics, and calls are increasing for their adoption by community ecologists. Multilayer networks in community ecology will allow space, time and multiple interaction types to be incorporated into species interaction networks. While the multilayer network framework is applicable to ecological questions, it is one thing to be able to describe ecological communities as multilayer networks and another for multilayer networks to actually prove useful for answering ecological questions. Importantly, documenting multilayer network structure requires substantially greater empirical investment than standard ecological networks. In response, we argue that this additional effort is worthwhile and describe a series of research lines where we expect multilayer networks will generate the greatest impact. Inter-layer edges are the key component that differentiate multilayer networks from standard ecological networks. Inter-layer edges join different networks—termed layers—together and represent ecological processes central to the species interactions studied (e.g., inter-layer edges representing movement for networks separated in space). Inter-layer edges may take a variety of forms, be species- or network-specific, and be measured with a large suite of empirical techniques. Additionally, the sheer size of ecological multilayer networks also requires some changes to empirical data collection around interaction quantification, collaborative efforts and collation in public databases. Network ecology has already touched on a wide swath of ecology and evolutionary biology. Because network stability and patterns of species linkage are the most developed areas of network ecology, they are a natural starting place for multilayer investigations. However, multilayer networks will also provide novel insights to niche partitioning, the connection between traits and species’ interactions, and even the geographic mosaic of co-evolution. Synthesis. Multilayer networks provide a formal way to bring together the study of species interaction networks and the processes that influence them. However, describing inter-layer edges and the increasing amounts of data required represent challenges. The pay-off for added investment will be ecological networks that describe the composition and capture the dynamics of ecological communities more completely and, consequently, have greater power for understanding the patterns and processes that underpin diversity in ecological communities. A plain language summary is available for this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)206-217
Number of pages12
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • ecological community
  • ecological network
  • food webs
  • interaction turnover
  • multilayer
  • multiplex
  • species interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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