The potential connection between exploitation and interference competition was recognized long ago but has not been evaluated. We measured the levels of both forms of competition for the protist Didinium preying upon Paramecium. Across populations, exploitation intensity was tightly linked to interference intensity, and the form of this relationship follows from a simple model of interaction speeds. The variation in interference competition was as large across populations of Didinium as has been observed previously across species from a variety of taxa including birds, mammals, insects, crustaceans, flatworms and protists. The link between exploitation and interference competition alters our understanding of how interference competition influences population dynamics. Instead of simply stabilizing systems, variation in interference levels can shift population dynamics through qualitatively different regimes because of its association with exploitation competition. Strong interference competition pushes a system to a regime of deterministic extinction, but intermediate interference generates a system that is stable with a high competitive ability. This may help to explain why the distribution of interference values is unimodal and mostly intermediate in intensity.
Exploitation and interference competition are typically viewed as separate processes. Exploitation is described with a functional response in which the inclusion of interference competition – the effect of predator density on foraging rates – is optional. Although recent work indicates that interference competition is widespread, there is little work linking the two forms of competition. In this article we present evidence that exploitation and interference competition are linked mechanistically through movement patterns that simultaneously generate beneficial interactions of consumers with resources and detrimental interactions with other consumers. This connection alters our view of the role that interference plays in ecological dynamics.