Historical contingency in species interactions: towards niche-based predictions

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Abstract

The way species affect one another in ecological communities often depends on the order of species arrival. The magnitude of such historical contingency, known as priority effects, varies across species and environments, but this variation has proven difficult to predict, presenting a major challenge in understanding species interactions and consequences for community structure and function. Here, we argue that improved predictions can be achieved by decomposing species' niches into three components: overlap, impact and requirement. Based on classic theories of community assembly, three hypotheses that emphasise related, but distinct influences of the niche components are proposed: priority effects are stronger among species with higher resource use overlap; species that impact the environment to a greater extent exert stronger priority effects; and species whose growth rate is more sensitive to changes in the environment experience stronger priority effects. Using nectar-inhabiting microorganisms as a model system, we present evidence that these hypotheses complement the conventional hypothesis that focuses on the role of environmental harshness, and show that niches can be twice as predictive when separated into components. Taken together, our hypotheses provide a basis for developing a general framework within which the magnitude of historical contingency in species interactions can be predicted.

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