Animals and plants compete for resources and traditionally we have held the view that competition drives interactions between species relying on the same resources. But Hayley Cameron and Dustin Marshall have shown it is not all about competition. Previously, we described Hayley’s PhD work where she demonstrated that large individuals did not outcompete their smaller neighbours, but instead facilitated their access to resources. But is that still true when the neighbours are a different species?
Hayley and Dustin have now looked at this in more detail. Collaborating with Tim Coulson from the University of Oxford, they varied the size and number of one species to see if it would affect the survival, growth and reproduction of a second species. They wanted to know how populations are affected when the size and numbers of neighbours vary.
The team used two common, filter-feeding, marine invertebrates shown to compete for food, space and oxygen. Watersipora is an ‘encrusting’ species that grows across surfaces, often growing over other organisms. Bugula has a ‘tree-like’ growth form and can efficiently harvest food and oxygen.
Both species are colonial invertebrates, made up of individual zooids. Watersipora and Bugula colonies were trimmed, creating a range of sizes and then a single Watersipora colony was placed on a small PVC plate and surrounded by different numbers of Bugula colonies. In total, they had 240 small plates hanging in Port Phillip Bay for 8 weeks.
Hayley, Tim and Dustin were interested in the consequences for populations when species of different sizes interact. So, they used a particular type of mathematical model called an Integral Projection Model. They entered data on survival, growth and reproduction of Watersipora for each size and number of Bugula neighbours. The model calculated the population growth rate for Watersipora with different neighbour combinations.
They found population growth of Watersipora was greatest when there were many, small Bugula neighbours. Large Bugula in the neighbourhood meant slow population growth of Watersipora; the species’ competed for resources and the more, large Bugulathere were, the greater the competition.
We know Bugula disrupts water flow and affects the delivery of food and oxygen to Watersipora. It seems, many small Buguladisrupt water flow and more food and oxygen reach the Watersipora. But while large Bugula also slow water flow, they consume more resources leaving a net negative effect on Watersipora.
So, both size and density played a part in determining whether a neighbour facilitated or competed with a target species. This means different population size structures will yield different outcomes in terms of species interactions. Hayley, Tim and Dustin emphasise that size should be included in studies of competition as any conclusions about how two species interact will depend on the size and density of the proposed competitor.
What is particularly exciting about these results is that the team may have uncovered an alternative pathway through which species using the same resources can co-exist. If body size mediates a switch between facilitation and competition then co-existence is more possible than previously simple experiments would imply.