Life history, the schedule of when and how fast organisms grow, die and reproduce, is a critical axis along which species differ from each other 1–4. In parallel, competition is a fundamental mechanism that determines the potential for species coexistence 5–8. Previous models of stochastic competition have demonstrated that large numbers of species can persist over long timescales, even when competing for a single common resource 9–12, but how life history differences between species increase or decrease the possibility of coexistence and, conversely, whether competition constrains what combinations of life history strategies complement each other remain open questions. Here we show that specific combinations of life history strategy optimize the persistence times of species competing for a single resource before one species overtakes its competitors. This suggests that co-occurring species would tend to have such complementary life history strategies, which we demonstrate using empirical data for perennial plants.
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