Competition-defense tradeoffs and the maintenance of plant diversity.


Ecologists have long observed that consumers can maintain species diversity in communities of their prey. Many theories of how consumers mediate diversity invoke a tradeoff between species' competitive ability and their ability to withstand predation. Under this constraint, the best competitors are also most susceptible to consumers, preventing them from excluding other species. However, empirical evidence for competition-defense tradeoffs is limited and, as such, the mechanisms by which consumers regulate diversity remain uncertain. We performed a meta-analysis of 36 studies to evaluate the prevalence of the competition-defense tradeoff and its role in maintaining diversity in plant communities. We quantified species' responses to experimental resource addition and consumer removal as estimates of competitive ability and resistance to consumers, respectively. With this analysis, we found mixed empirical evidence for a competition-defense tradeoff; in fact, competitive ability tended to be weakly positively correlated with defense overall. However, when present, negative relationships between competitive ability and defense influenced species diversity in the manner predicted by theory. In the minority of communities for which a tradeoff was detected, species evenness was higher, and resource addition and consumer removal reduced diversity. Our analysis reframes the commonly held notion that consumers structure plant communities through a competition-defense tradeoff. Such a tradeoff can maintain diversity when present, but negative correlations between competitive ability and defense were less common than is often assumed. In this respect, this study supports an emerging theoretical paradigm in which predation interacts with competition to both enhance and reduce species diversity.

MIDAS Network Members