In the past decade, ecologists have increasingly applied complex network theory (1, 2) to ecological interactions, both in entire food webs (3) and in networks representing ecological interactions, especially those between plants and their animal pollinators or seed dispersers (4). How important are individual species to the maintenance of such ecological networks? On page 1489 of this issue, Stouffer et al. (5) analyze terrestrial, freshwater, and marine food webs to infer the contributions of individual species to network stability. In a related field study on page 1486 of this issue, Aizen et al. (6) explore plant and pollinator webs on a landscape scale. Using a different field study design, Pocock et al. (7) recently focused on a local community in which several webs of different kinds of interactions and organisms form a composite network.
Studies of ecological networks (the web of interactions between species in a community) demonstrate an intricate link between a community’s structure and its long-term viability. It remains unclear, however, how much a community’s persistence depends on the identities of the species present, or how much the role played by each species varies as a function of the community in which it is found. We measured species’ roles by studying how species are embedded within the overall network and the subsequent dynamic implications. Using data from 32 empirical food webs, we find that species’ roles and dynamic importance are inherent species attributes and can be extrapolated across communities on the basis of taxonomic classification alone. Our results illustrate the variability of roles across species and communities and the relative importance of distinct species groups when attempting to conserve ecological communities.