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Competition and phylogeny determine community structure in Müllerian co-mimics


Until recently, the study of negative and antagonistic interactions (for example, competition and predation) has dominated our understanding of community structure, maintenance and assembly1. Nevertheless, a recent theoretical model suggests that positive interactions (for example, mutualisms) may counterbalance competition, facilitating long-term coexistence even among ecologically undifferentiated species2. Müllerian mimics are mutualists that share the costs of predator education3 and are therefore ideally suited for the investigation of positive and negative interactions in community dynamics. The sole empirical test of this model in a Müllerian mimetic community supports the prediction that positive interactions outweigh the negative effects of spatial overlap4 (without quantifying resource acquisition). Understanding the role of trophic niche partitioning in facilitating the evolution and stability of Müllerian mimetic communities is now of critical importance, but has yet to be formally investigated. Here we show that resource partitioning and phylogeny determine community structure and outweigh the positive effects of Müllerian mimicry in a species-rich group of neotropical catfishes. From multiple, independent reproductively isolated allopatric communities displaying convergently evolved colour patterns, 92% consist of species that do not compete for resources. Significant differences in phylogenetically conserved traits (snout morphology and body size) were consistently linked to trait-specific resource acquisition. Thus, we report the first evidence, to our knowledge, that competition for trophic resources and phylogeny are pivotal factors in the stable evolution of Müllerian mimicry rings. More generally, our work demonstrates that competition for resources is likely to have a dominant role in the structuring of communities that are simultaneously subject to the effects of both positive and negative interactions.

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Figure 1: Phylogenetic relationships of Corydoradinae including co-mimics.
Figure 2: Geographical distribution of mimetic communities.

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Sequence data have been deposited in GenBank ( with accession numbers detailed in Supplementary Table 1.


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This research was funded by NERC small grant (NE/C001168/1), NERC Mass Spectrometry access grant (NE/F007205/1) awarded to M.I.T., and a NERC PhD studentship (NE/F007205/1) awarded to M.A.A. Research was also supported by UNESP, Brazil. We would like to thank the staff and students of UNESP, Botucatu, Brazil for facilities and research support during fieldwork including P. Venere for helping to collect samples in the Rio Araguaia, and M. Britto for identifying samples. We would also like to thank B. Emerson and G. Ruxton for their suggestions and critical evaluation of the manuscript. We thank J. Montoya-Burgos, M. Sabaj Perez, I. Fuller, H.-G. Evers, M. Walters and K. Mathiesen for providing tissue samples and photographs, and A. Orchard for photographing preserved specimens.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.I.T. conceived the study, contributed to all data collection, analysis and writing and supervised M.A.A.; M.A.A. conducted fieldwork, DNA sequencing, stable isotope analysis, morphology and colour pattern analysis, data analysis and writing. C.O. co-supervised M.A.A. and organized and participated in field sampling and writing. M.M. and R.A.R.M. conducted DNA sequencing and stable isotope analysis, respectively; J.N. provided stable isotope advice and guidance; and S.C. co-supervised M.A.A. and contributed to writing.

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Correspondence to Martin I. Taylor.

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Alexandrou, M., Oliveira, C., Maillard, M. et al. Competition and phylogeny determine community structure in Müllerian co-mimics. Nature 469, 84–88 (2011).

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