Spatial dynamics in model plant communities: What do we really know?

Benjamin M. Bolker, Stephen W. Pacala, Claudia Neuhauser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

182 Scopus citations


A variety of models have shown that spatial dynamics and small-scale endogenous heterogeneity (e.g., forest gaps or local resource depletion zones) can change the rate and outcome of competition in communities of plants or other sessile organisms. However, the theory appears complicated and hard to connect to real systems. We synthesize results from three different kinds of models: interacting particle systems, moment equations for spatial point processes, and metapopulation or patch models. Studies using all three frameworks agree that spatial dynamics need not enhance coexistence nor slow down dynamics; their effects depend on the underlying competitive interactions in the community. When similar species would coexist in a nonspatial habitat, endogenous spatial structure inhibits coexistence and slows dynamics. When a dominant species disperses poorly and the weaker species has higher fecundity or better dispersal, competition-colonization trade-offs enhance coexistence. Even when species have equal dispersal and per-generation fecundity, spatial successional niches where the weaker and faster-growing species can rapidly exploit ephemeral local resources can enhance coexistence. When interspecific competition is strong, spatial dynamics reduce founder control at large scales and short dispersal becomes advantageous. We describe a series of empirical tests to detect and distinguish among the suggested scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-148
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2003


  • Competition
  • Competition-colonization
  • Endogenous
  • Phalanx
  • Spatial
  • Successional niche


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