Published on Fri Oct 01 2021

Effects of phenotypic variation on consumer coexistence and prey community structure

Hogle, S. L., Hepolehto, I., Ruokolainen, L., Cairns, J., Hiltunen, T.

A popular idea in ecology is that trait variation among individuals from the same species may promote the coexistence of competing species. We manipulated intraspecific trait diversity in a ciliate competing with a nematode for bacterial prey in experimental microcosms.

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Abstract

A popular idea in ecology is that trait variation among individuals from the same species may promote the coexistence of competing species. However, theoretical and empirical tests of this idea have yielded inconsistent findings. We manipulated intraspecific trait diversity in a ciliate competing with a nematode for bacterial prey in experimental microcosms. We found that intraspecific trait variation inverted the original competitive hierarchy to favor the consumer with variable traits, ultimately resulting in competitive exclusion. This competitive outcome was driven by foraging traits (size, speed, and directionality) that increased the ciliate's fitness ratio and niche overlap with the nematode. The interplay between consumer trait variation and competition resulted in non-additive cascading effects - mediated through prey defense traits - on prey community assembly. Our results suggest that predicting consumer competitive population dynamics and the assembly of prey communities will require understanding the complexities of trait variation within consumer species.