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Keywords:

  • coexistence;
  • competition;
  • food web;
  • species diversity;
  • stabilizing effect

Summary

1. Ecological differences among co-occurring taxa are often invoked as an explanation for the maintenance of biodiversity. Whether these differences facilitate coexistence, which allows unequal competitors to remain in systems and thus maintain biodiversity, is still unclear.

2. Here, we used observational and experimental studies to test for ecological partitioning in ways that would promote coexistence among three co-occurring damselfly genera. We evaluated two necessary conditions for coexistence: (i) that the damselfly genera differ in their abilities to engage in interactions with other damselfly genera and environmental conditions such that their relative abundances covary differently along environmental gradients and (ii) that an increase in intrageneric abundance is more detrimental to performance-related demographic features of each genus than increases in intergeneric abundances.

3. Observational studies across 40 lakes showed that relative abundances of each genus covaried differently along an environmental gradient of lake abiotic and biotic features consistent with ecological partitioning. Field experiments in which we manipulated both intra- and intergeneric densities demonstrated that per capita growth rates of each genus are negatively density-dependent and are only limited by increases in intra- not intergeneric densities.

4. Collectively, these results show a clear signature of ecological partitioning among each genus, which should prevent competitive exclusion and maintain each genus in this system. The results do not guarantee local coexistence among the three genera but are consistent with criteria that should promote their coexistence. Our results also suggest that a food web model coupling keystone predation and apparent competition is likely necessary to explain the ecological dynamics of persistence among these genera.