Power laws in species’ biotic interaction networks can be inferred from co-occurrence data

Inferring biotic interactions from species co-occurrence patterns has long intrigued ecologists. Yet recent research revealed that co-occurrences may not reliably represent pairwise biotic interactions.

We propose that examining network-level co-occurrence patterns can provide valuable insights into community structure and assembly. Analysing ten bipartite networks of empirically sampled biotic interactions and associated species spatial distribution, we find that approximately 20% of co-occurrences correspond to actual interactions.

Moreover, the degree distribution shifts from exponential in co-occurrence networks to power laws in networks of biotic interactions. This shift results from a strong interplay between species’ biotic (their interacting partners) and abiotic (their environmental requirements) niches, and is accurately predicted by considering co-occurrence frequencies. Our work offers a mechanistic understanding of the assembly of ecological communities and suggests simple ways to infer fundamental biotic interaction network characteristics from co-occurrence data.