Rethinking Community Assembly through the Lens of Coexistence Theory
J. HilleRisLambers, P.B. Adler, W.S. Harpole, J.M. Levine, and M.M. Mayfield
The big (literally, at 24 pages) paper to read this year is a review by a number of well-known community ecologists that aims to package years of often contradictory and confusing results from community assembly research (Weiher & Keddy 2001) into a manageable package using coexistence theory. Coexistence theory arose particularly out of Peter Chesson’s work (particularly his own annual review paper (Chesson 2000)), and rests in the idea that coexistence between species is the result of a balance of stabilizing forces (i.e. niche differences) and equalizing forces (i.e. fitness similarity) between those species. Coexistence is stable when stabilizing forces dominate, so a species competes more strongly with itself than with other, more dissimilar, species. The most successful adaptations of this framework to “real world” experiments have come from Jonathan Levine’s lab (in collaboration with many of the coauthors on this work). Indeed, there are probably few people more qualified to attempt to re-explain the often complicated findings in community assembly research using coexistence theory.
The classic heuristic model for community assembly involves a regional species pool that is consecutively filtered through environmental and then biotic filters, selecting only for those species adapted to the local environment. While logically appealing, this model may have constrained thinking about assembly: after all, our definition of a niche recognizes that species are impacted by and impact their environments (Chase & Leibold 2003), and unlike a expectations for a biotic "filter", arrival order can alter the outcome of biotic interactions. But does coexistence theory do a better job of capturing these dynamics?
The important message to take from coexistence theory, the authors suggest, is that stabilizing niche differences facilitate coexistence, whereas relative fitness differences drive competitive exclusion. And although this yields predictions about how similar or different coexisting species should be, coexistence theory diverges in a number of ways from trait-based or phylogenetic approaches to community assembly. “First, competitive exclusion can either preferentially eliminate taxa that are too functionally similar when trait differences function as stabilizing niche differences or preferentially eliminate all taxa that do not possess the near optimal trait when such trait differences translate into fitness differences. Second, both stabilizing niche differences and relative fitness differences are influenced by abiotic and biotic factors. For both reasons, patterns of trait dissimilarity or similarity cannot easily be used to infer the relative importance of environmental versus biotic (competitive) filters, which is an important goal of community assembly studies.”
There are a number of ways in which pre-existing research might provide evidence for the predictions of coexistence theory. You can look at studies which modify fitness differences between species (for example, through nutrient addition experiments), those which modify niche differences (for example, manipulating colonization differences between species), and those which manipulate the types of species competing to establish. You can take advantage of trait or phylogenetic information about communities (and traits are valuable because they provide a mechanistic linkage), although Mayfield and Levine (2010) have already shown there are clear limitations to such approaches. A particularly useful approach may be to look at demographic rates, particularly looking for frequency-dependent growth rates, an indicator of niche differences between species – when niche differences are large, species should have higher growth rates at low density (lower intraspecific competition) than at high density. And indeed, there is some evidence for the effect of fitness differences or niche differences on community composition.
Ultimately reanalyzing old research has its limitations: is it possible that nutrient additions leading to changes in community structure are evidence of fitness differences? Yes. Are there other possible explanations? Yes. Convincing evidence will take new studies, and the authors make some excellent suggestions to this end: that we need to combine demographic and trait-based approaches so that assembly studies results suggest at mechanisms, not patterns. The focus would be on correlating niche and fitness differences with traits, rather than correlating traits with species’ presence or absence in the community.
Given the muddle that is community assembly research, a review that offers a new approach is always timely, and this one is very comprehensive and sure to be well cited. Strangely, for me this paper perhaps lacked the moment of insight I felt when I read about coexistence theory being applied to invasive species (MacDougall et al 2009) or phylogenetic analyses of communities (Mayfield and Levine, 2010). There are a few reasons why that might be: one is that there are difficulties that are not well explored, particularly that traits may not realistically be able to be categorized in an either-niche-or-fitness fashion, and that abiotic and biotic factors can interact with traits. The predictions this framework makes for community assembly are less clear: even the tidiness of coexistence theory can't escape the complications of community assembly. But perhaps that is a pessimistic take on community assembly. Regardless, the paper has a lot to offer researchers and will hopefully encourage new work exploring the role of niche and fitness differences in community assembly.