A framework for linking competitor ecological differences to coexistence

Brittany H. Ousterhout, Mabel Serrano, Jason T. Bried, Adam M. Siepielski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Not all ecological differences among competing species affect their ability to locally coexist. Rather, the differences that promote stable coexistence can be those which cause each species to experience stronger intraspecific than interspecific competition. Recent approaches have established how to detect the demographic signature of these competitive effects, but alone they cannot elucidate the ecological differences among species that yield these patterns. Here, we present a unifying experimental and observational framework that identifies potential ecological differences among species shaping their responses to intra- and interspecific competition. We first describe a conceptual model establishing why the strength of intra- and interspecific competitive interactions should vary along environmental gradients related to species ecological differences. We then show how to apply the framework using Enallagma damselflies, a diverse group of predatory aquatic insects. To determine how species responded to intra- and interspecific competition along environmental gradients, we experimentally manipulated the relative abundances of three species and replicated this across five lakes which varied in environmental conditions affecting larval damselfly per capita growth and mortality rates—key vital rates regulating their populations. Results suggest Enallagma are ecologically differentiated in ways that in some communities can result in intraspecific competition exceeding interspecific competition. However, in many cases the opposite was true, or the effects of intra- and interspecific competition were equivalent via growth and mortality responses. Moreover, these effects tended to be weak and asymmetrical among competitors, which suggests that differential responses of larval growth and mortality to intra- and interspecific competition may not contribute strongly to the maintenance of Enallagma diversity. Different environmental factors appear to shape these demographic responses to competition, providing insight into the ecological mechanisms regulating damselfly assemblages. This framework can be broadly applied to identify the ecological differences among species that may promote coexistence, advancing knowledge of the mechanisms underlying coexistence and overcoming some limitations of purely phenomenological approaches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1534-1548
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • coexistence
  • competition
  • diversity
  • Enallagma
  • interspecific effects
  • intraspecific effects
  • niche

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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