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Local dispersal promotes biodiversity in a real-life game of rock–paper–scissors


One of the central aims of ecology is to identify mechanisms that maintain biodiversity1,2. Numerous theoretical models have shown that competing species can coexist if ecological processes such as dispersal, movement, and interaction occur over small spatial scales1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. In particular, this may be the case for non-transitive communities, that is, those without strict competitive hierarchies3,6,8,11. The classic non-transitive system involves a community of three competing species satisfying a relationship similar to the children's game rock–paper–scissors, where rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock. Such relationships have been demonstrated in several natural systems12,13,14. Some models predict that local interaction and dispersal are sufficient to ensure coexistence of all three species in such a community, whereas diversity is lost when ecological processes occur over larger scales6,8. Here, we test these predictions empirically using a non-transitive model community containing three populations of Escherichia coli. We find that diversity is rapidly lost in our experimental community when dispersal and interaction occur over relatively large spatial scales, whereas all populations coexist when ecological processes are localized.

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Figure 1: Predictions of the lattice-based simulation (see Box 1).
Figure 2: Community dynamics in the experimental treatments: a, Static Plate; b, Flask; and c, Mixed Plate.
Figure 3: Time series photographs of a representative run of the Static Plate environment.


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We thank M. Munos for help in the laboratory, N.B. Raju for helping with the plate photography, and D. Ackerly, P. Armsworth, C. Boggs, C. Devine, P. Godfrey-Smith, D. Gordon, A. Hirsh, J. Huisman, C. Jessup, S. Levin, D. Petrov, P. Rainey, T. Ricketts, S. Tuljapurkar, K. Walag and V. Walbot for many comments on previous versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Kerr.

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Kerr, B., Riley, M., Feldman, M. et al. Local dispersal promotes biodiversity in a real-life game of rock–paper–scissors. Nature 418, 171–174 (2002).

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