Niche engineering reveals complementary resource use


  • Corresponding Editor: J. T. Cronin.


Greater resource use by diverse communities might result from species occupying complementary niches. Demonstrating niche complementarity among species is challenging, however, due to the difficulty in relating differences between species in particular traits to their use of complementary resources. Here, we overcame this obstacle by exploiting plastic foraging behavior in a community of predatory insects common on Brassica oleracea plants in Washington, USA. These predators complemented one another by partitioning foraging space, with some species foraging primarily along leaf edges and others at leaf centers. We hypothesized that emergent biodiversity effects would occur when predators partitioned foraging space on leaves, but not when spatial complementarity was dampened. Indeed, on intact leaves, edge- and center-foraging predators combined to kill more prey than any single predator species could by itself. These emergent diversity effects, however, disappeared on plants damaged by the caterpillar Plutella xylostella. Caterpillar chew-holes brought edge habitats to the center of leaves, so that all predator species could attack aphids anywhere on plants. With spatial niche differences diminished, there were no benefits of predator diversity; the most voracious single predator species killed the most aphids. Thus, caterpillar herbivory determined whether multi-predator-species effects reflected complementarity or species' individual impacts. Our study provides direct evidence for a causative relationship between niche differentiation and increased resource consumption by diverse communities, as revealed by ecological engineers that homogenize the foraging environment.