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Ecological and evolutionary consequences of niche construction for its agent




Niche construction can generate ecological and evolutionary feedbacks that have been underinvestigated so far. We present an eco-evolutionary model that incorporates the process of niche construction to reveal its effects on the ecology and evolution of the niche-constructing agent. We consider a simple plant–soil nutrient ecosystem in which plants have the ability to increase the input of inorganic nutrient as an example of positive niche construction. On an ecological time scale, the model shows that niche construction allows the persistence of plants under infertile soil conditions that would otherwise lead to their extinction. This expansion of plants’ niche, however, requires a high enough rate of niche construction and a high enough initial plant biomass to fuel the positive ecological feedback between plants and their soil environment. On an evolutionary time scale, we consider that the rates of niche construction and nutrient uptake coevolve in plants while a trade-off constrains their values. Different evolutionary outcomes are possible depending on the shape of the trade-off. We show that niche construction results in an evolutionary feedback between plants and their soil environment such that plants partially regulate soil nutrient content. The direct benefit accruing to plants, however, plays a crucial role in the evolutionary advantage of niche construction.