Dynamics of species coexistence: maintenance of a plant-ant competitive metacommunity

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The metacommunity approach is an adequate framework to study coexistence between interacting species at different spatial scales. However, empirical evidence from natural metacommunities necessary to evaluate the predictive power of theoretical models of species coexistence remains sparse. We use two African ant species, Cataulacus mckeyi and Petalomyrmex phylax, symbiotically associated with the myrmecophyte Leonardoxa africana africana, to examine spatio-temporal dynamics of species coexistence and to investigate which environmental and life-history parameters may contribute to the maintenance of species diversity in this guild of symbiotic ants. Using environmental niche partitioning as a conceptual framework, we combined data on habitat variation, social structure of colonies, and population genetics with data from a colonisation experiment and from observation of temporal dynamics. We propose that the dynamics of ant species colonisation and replacement at local and regional scales can be explained by a set of life history traits for which the two ants exhibit hierarchies, coupled with strong environmental differences between the different patches in the level of environmental disturbances. The role of the competition-colonisation tradeoff is discussed and we propose that interspecific tradeoffs for traits related to dispersal and to reproduction are also determinant for species coexistence. We therefore suggest that species-sorting mechanisms are predominant in the dynamics of this metacommunity, but we also emphasise that there may be many ways for two symbionts in competition for the same host to coexist. The results speak in favour of a more complete integration of the various metacommunity models in a single theoretical framework.

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