American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

“Scale both confounds and informs characterization of multi-species coexistence in empirical systems”

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Adam Thomas Clark, Helmut Hillebrand, and W. Stanley Harpole (Dec 2019)

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Scale often confounds attempts to characterize coexistence in empirical systems – but, cross-scale analyses can help


Identifying stable coexistence in empirical systems is notoriously difficult. Here, we show how spatiotemporal structure and complex system dynamics can confound two commonly used stability metrics in empirical contexts – response to perturbation, and invasion rate when rare. We use these metrics to characterize stable coexistence across a range of spatial and temporal scales for five simulated models, in which the ability of species to coexist in the long-term is known a priori, and an empirical old-field successional time-series. We term the resulting multivariate distribution of metrics a stability fingerprint. In accordance with a wide range of classic and recent studies, our results demonstrate that no combination of empirically tractable metrics or measurements is guaranteed to “correctly” characterize coexistence. However, we also find that heuristic information from the stability fingerprint can be used to broadly characterize dynamic behavior, and identify circumstances under which particular combinations of species are likely to persist. Moreover, stability fingerprints appear to be particularly well-suited for matching potential theoretical models to observed dynamics. These findings suggest that it may be prudent to shift the focus of empirical stability analysis away from quantifying single measures of stability, and towards more heuristic, multivariate characterizations of community dynamics.