Intraspecific trait variation and colonization sequence alter community assembly and disease epidemics

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When individuals from multiple populations colonize a new habitat patch, intraspecific trait variation can make the arrival order of colonists an important factor for subsequent population and community dynamics. In particular, intraspecific priority effects (IPEs) allow early arrivers to limit the growth or establishment of later arrivers, even when competitively inferior on a per-capita basis. Through their effects on genes and traits, IPEs can alter short-term growth and long-term evolutionary change in single species metapopulations. Given their importance for intraspecific interactions, IPEs in a dominant species have the potential to affect the composition of entire communities. We conducted an experiment to determine whether and how arrival order and IPEs in the zooplankter Daphnia pulex affected its interactions with both competitors (the cladoceran Simocephalus vetulus) and parasites (the virulent fungus Metschnikowia bicuspidata). We found strong evidence for IPEs in Daphnia, as early arrivers inhibited late arrivers even when competitively inferior. These IPEs in Daphnia altered both the establishment success of interspecific competitors and the size of disease epidemics: early colonization by fast-growing D. pulex led to large Daphnia populations and low competitor establishment, but large disease epidemics. Early colonization by slow-growing D. pulex, on the other hand, resulted in small Daphnia populations with high competitor establishment, but smaller disease epidemics. Overall, our results demonstrate the importance of intraspecific variation and arrival order for community dynamics, and highlight IPEs as a general mechanism driving variation in natural communities.

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