On the evidence for species coexistence: a critique of the coexistence program

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Abstract

A major challenge in ecology is to understand how the millions of species on Earth are organized into biological communities. Mechanisms promoting coexistence are one such class of organizing processes, which allow multiple species to persist in the same trophic level of a given web of species interactions. If some mechanism promotes the coexistence of two or more species, each species must be able to increase when it is rare and the others are at their typical abundances; this invasibility criterion is fundamental evidence for species coexistence regardless of the mechanism. In an attempt to evaluate the level of empirical support for coexistence mechanisms in nature, we surveyed the literature for empirical studies of coexistence at a local scale (i.e., species found living together in one place) to determine whether these studies satisfied the invasibility criterion. In our survey, only seven of 323 studies that drew conclusions about species coexistence evaluated invasibility in some way in either observational or experimental studies. In addition, only three other studies evaluated necessary but not sufficient conditions for invasibility (i.e., negative density dependence and a trade-off in performance that influences population regulation). These results indicate that, while species coexistence is a prevalent assumption for why species are able to live together in one place, critical empirical tests of this fundamental assumption of community structure are rarely performed. These tests are central to developing a more robust understanding of the relative contributions of both deterministic and stochastic processes structuring biological communities.

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