The processes whereby ecological networks emerge, persist and decay throughout ecosystem development are largely unknown. Here we study networks of plant and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal (AMF) communities along a 120 000 year soil chronosequence, as they undergo assembly (progression) and then disassembly (retrogression). We found that network assembly and disassembly were symmetrical, self-reinforcing processes that together were capable of generating key attributes of network architecture. Plant and AMF species that had short indirect paths to others in the community (i.e. high centrality), rather than many direct interaction partners (i.e. high degree), were best able to attract new interaction partners and, in the case of AMF species, also to retain existing interactions with plants during retrogression. We then show using simulations that these non-random patterns of attachment and detachment promote nestedness of the network. These results have implications for predicting extinction sequences, identifying focal points for invasions and suggesting trajectories for restoration.
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