Coexistence of plant species in a biodiversity hotspot is stabilized by competition but not by seed predation
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Understanding the mechanisms of species coexistence is a key task for ecology. Recent theory predicts that both competition and predation (which causes apparent competition among prey) can either promote or limit species coexistence. Both mechanisms cause negative interactions between individuals, and each mechanism promotes stable coexistence if it causes negative interactions to be stronger between conspecifics than between heterospecifics. However, the relative importance of competition and predation for coexistence in natural communities is poorly known. Here, we study how competition and apparent competition via pre-dispersal seed predators affect the long-term fecundity of Protea shrubs in the fire-prone Fynbos biome (South Africa). These shrubs store all viable seeds produced since the last fire in fire-proof cones. Competitive effects on cone number and pre-dispersal seed predation reduce their fecundity and can thus limit recruitment after the next fire. In 27 communities comprising 49 990 shrubs of 22 Protea species, we measured cone number and per-cone seed predation rate of 2154 and 1755 focal individuals, respectively. Neighbourhood analyses related these measures to individual-based community maps. We found that conspecific neighbours had stronger competitive effects on cone number than heterospecific neighbours. In contrast, apparent competition via seed predators was comparable between conspecifics and heterospecifics. This indicates that competition stabilizes coexistence of Protea species, whereas pre-dispersal seed predation does not. Larger neighbours had stronger competitive effects and neighbours with large seed crops exerted stronger apparent competition. For 97% of the focal plants, competition reduced fecundity more than apparent competition. Our results show that even in communities of closely related and ecologically similar species, intraspecific competition can be stronger than interspecific competition. On the other hand, apparent competition through seed predators need not have such a stabilizing effect. These findings illustrate the potential of ‘community demography’, the demographic study of multiple interacting species, for understanding plant coexistence.
- RESEARCH: Esler K