Winners and losers: how does metabolic rate affect the outcomes of competition?

An individual’s success in competitive environments is often closely aligned with its metabolic rate. When resources are scarce, individuals with lower metabolic rates are expected to grow larger and dominate while individuals with higher metabolic rates will struggle if their energy demands cannot be met. Increasing population density can increase competition for a finite pool of resources and so lower metabolic rate individuals may do better in more competitive environments.

Lukas Schuster and supervisors Craig White and Dustin Marshall noted that investigations into the relationships between metabolic rate and competitive interactions have mainly taken place in the laboratory. They wanted to know how metabolic rate affected competitive interactions in a more realistic field situation. So, they designed an experiment using the model species Bugula neritina, a colonial marine animal that, crucially, does not move allowing survival, growth, and reproductive output to be easily measured in the field.

Lukas settled Bugula larvae on to acetate sheets and after two weeks of growth in the field he brought them back to the lab to measure metabolic rates. Each colony with a known metabolic rate was then assigned to become either a ‘focal’ colony or a ‘neighbour’ colony. Colonies were glued on to small plates and focal colonies either had a neighbour colony placed 1 cm away, or were left alone on the plate to determine the baseline relationship between metabolic rate and performance. Plates were distributed across 5 panels and returned to the field site and Lukas monitored focal individuals bi-weekly for survival, growth and reproductive output.

To the teams surprise they found a range of responses on the different panels despite their relative proximity. They concluded that each panel experienced a different microenvironment that, in turn, influenced the effects of metabolic rates on competitive outcomes. While the presence of a neighbour did reduce performance of focal colonies on most panels, the effects of metabolic rates of both focal colonies and neighbours were much more complex.

Bugula neritina individuals were attached to small plates either alone or with a neighbour and these plates were then attached to larger panels and hung in the marina. Despite their proximity, the team suspect differences in microclimate around each panel contributed to the variable outcomes of metabolic rate on competitive interactions.

Low metabolic rate colonies were larger overall, presumably because of their lower maintenance costs but, in general, the metabolic rate of the neighbour seemed more important to performance of the focal colony than its own metabolic rate. Lukas and his supervisors speculate that focal colonies benefited from being adjacent to fast-growing, low metabolic rate neighbours on panels where flow was higher because the larger neighbours slowed down currents allowing greater access to resources for the focal individual. In low flow environments the opposite may be true; resources are not replaced quickly enough and so low metabolic rate larger neighbours reduce resource access.

Lukas, Craig and Dustin recommend that future studies on the ecological effects of metabolism look at competition both within and among species and are field experiments wherever possible.

While they can’t say for sure, they suspect the variable outcomes of metabolic rate on competition relate to differences in current regimes and the delivery of resources.  Future studies manipulating food availability along with metabolic rates will help address this possibility.

This research is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.