Trait plasticity in species interactions: a driving force of community dynamics
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- Berg, M.P. & Ellers, J. Evol Ecol (2010) 24: 617. doi:10.1007/s10682-009-9347-8
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Evolutionary community ecology is an emerging field of study that includes evolutionary principles such as individual trait variation and plasticity of traits to provide a more mechanistic insight as to how species diversity is maintained and community processes are shaped across time and space. In this review we explore phenotypic plasticity in functional traits and its consequences at the community level. We argue that resource requirement and resource uptake are plastic traits that can alter fundamental and realised niches of species in the community if environmental conditions change. We conceptually add to niche models by including phenotypic plasticity in traits involved in resource allocation under stress. Two qualitative predictions that we derive are: (1) plasticity in resource requirement induced by availability of resources enlarges the fundamental niche of species and causes a reduction of vacant niches for other species and (2) plasticity in the proportional resource uptake results in expansion of the realized niche, causing a reduction in the possibility for coexistence with other species. We illustrate these predictions with data on the competitive impact of invasive species. Furthermore, we review the quickly increasing number of empirical studies on evolutionary community ecology and demonstrate the impact of phenotypic plasticity on community composition. Among others, we give examples that show that differences in the level of phenotypic plasticity can disrupt species interactions when environmental conditions change, due to effects on realized niches. Finally, we indicate several promising directions for future phenotypic plasticity research in a community context. We need an integrative, trait-based approach that has its roots in community and evolutionary ecology in order to face fast changing environmental conditions such as global warming and urbanization that pose ecological as well as evolutionary challenges.