In this paper we investigate ecological flow networks via graph theory in search of the real sequential chains through which energy passes from producers to consumers in complex food webs. We obtain such fundamental pathways by identifying strongly connected components (SCCs), subsystems that groups species that take part in cycling, and performing topological sorting on the acyclic graphs that are obtained. Topological sorting identifies preferential directions for energy to flow from sources to sinks, while recycling remains confined within each SCC. Resolving food web networks for SCC highlights the possibility that compartments can be found in ecosystems, but this does not seem a general rule. The four aquatic food webs described in detail show a rather clear subdivision between benthic and pelagic subcommunities, a result that is discussed in the light of other studies. Should further research confirm these results, new insight into the way ecosystems use energy will be provided, with implications on cycling, reciprocal dependency of variables and indirect effects.
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