Trait plasticity alters the range of possible coexistence conditions in a competition–colonisation trade-off

Ranjan Muthukrishnan, Lauren L. Sullivan, Allison K. Shaw, James D. Forester

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Most of the classical theory on species coexistence has been based on species-level competitive trade-offs. However, it is becoming apparent that plant species display high levels of trait plasticity. The implications of this plasticity are almost completely unknown for most coexistence theory. Here, we model a competition–colonisation trade-off and incorporate trait plasticity to evaluate its effects on coexistence. Our simulations show that the classic competition–colonisation trade-off is highly sensitive to environmental circumstances, and coexistence only occurs in narrow ranges of conditions. The inclusion of plasticity, which allows shifts in competitive hierarchies across the landscape, leads to coexistence across a much broader range of competitive and environmental conditions including disturbance levels, the magnitude of competitive differences between species, and landscape spatial patterning. Plasticity also increases the number of species that persist in simulations of multispecies assemblages. Plasticity may generally increase the robustness of coexistence mechanisms and be an important component of scaling coexistence theory to higher diversity communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)791-799
Number of pages9
JournalEcology letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We appreciate the assistance and high-performance computing resources of the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI) at the University of Minnesota and UITS Research Technologies at Indiana University. This work was partially supported by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station and also benefitted from the suggestions of two anonymous reviewers.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd/CNRS


  • Dispersal
  • landscape heterogeneity
  • niche stabilisation
  • seed size
  • simulation model
  • trait plasticity

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Letter


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