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Experimental demonstration of the importance of competition under disturbance.

PNAS 107(29):12925 (2010) PMID 20616069 PMCID PMC2919955

Ecologists have long recognized the roles of competition and disturbance in shaping ecological communities, and the combinatorial effects of these two factors have been the subject of substantial ecological research. Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether competition remains as an important structuring force in habitats strongly influenced by disturbance. The conventional belief remains that the importance of competition decreases with increasing disturbance, but limited theory suggests otherwise. Using protist communities established in laboratory microcosms, we demonstrate that disturbance does not diminish the importance of competition. Interspecific competition significantly increased rates of species extinction over a broad disturbance gradient, and increasing disturbance intensities increased, rather than decreased, the tempo of competitive exclusion. This community-level pattern is linked to the species-level pattern that interspecific competition led to most frequent extinctions of each species at the highest level of disturbance that the species can tolerate. Consequently, despite a strong tradeoff between competitive ability and disturbance tolerance across the competing species, species diversity generally declined with disturbance. The consistent structuring role of competition throughout the disturbance gradient underscores the need to understand competitive interactions and their consequences even in highly disturbed habitats.

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1000699107