Theoretical Ecology

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 207–223 | Cite as

Broadly inflicted stressors can cause ecosystem thinning

  • Matthew G. BurgessEmail author
  • Alexa Fredston-Hermann
  • David Tilman
  • Michel Loreau
  • Steven D. Gaines


Many anthropogenic stressors broadly inflict mortality or reduce fecundity, including habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and multispecies harvesting. Here, we show—in four analytical models of interspecies competition—that broadly inflicted stressors disproportionately cause competitive exclusions within groups of ecologically similar species. As a result, we predict that ecosystems become progressively thinner—that is, they have progressively less functional redundancy—as broadly inflicted stressors become progressively more intense. This may negatively affect the temporal stability of ecosystem functions, but it also buffers ecosystem productivity against stress by favoring species less sensitive to the stressors. Our main result follows from the weak limiting similarity principle: species with more similar ecological niches compete more strongly, and their coexistence can be upset by smaller perturbations. We show that stressors can cause indirect competitive exclusions at much lower stressor intensity than needed to directly cause species extinction, consistent with the finding of empirical studies that species interactions are often the proximal drivers of local extinctions. The excluded species are more sensitive to the stressor relative to their ecologically similar competitors. Moreover, broadly inflicted stressors may cause hydra effects—where higher stressor intensity results in higher abundance for a species with lower sensitivity to the stressor than its competitors. Correlations between stressor impacts and ecological niches reduce the potential for indirect competitive exclusions, but they consequently also reduce the buffering effect of ecosystem thinning on ecosystem productivity. Our findings suggest that ecosystems experiencing stress may continue to provision ecosystem services but lose functional redundancy and stability.


Limiting similarity Competition Stability Ecosystem function Ecosystem services Biodiversity 



We thank Géza Meszéna and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on a previous draft and Stephen Pacala for a useful discussion.

Funding information

The study received funding from the Waitt Foundation and the University of Colorado Boulder. ML was supported by the TULIP Laboratory of Excellence (ANR-10-LABX-41) and by the BIOSTASES Advanced Grant and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement no. 666971).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  3. 3.Bren School of Environmental Science and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  4. 4.Department of Ecology, Evolution and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  5. 5.Centre for Biodiversity Theory and Modelling, Theoretical and Experimental Ecology StationCNRSMoulisFrance
  6. 6.Marine Science InstituteUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

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