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Beyond pairwise mechanisms of species coexistence in complex communities

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Abstract

The tremendous diversity of species in ecological communities has motivated a century of research into the mechanisms that maintain biodiversity. However, much of this work examines the coexistence of just pairs of competitors. This approach ignores those mechanisms of coexistence that emerge only in diverse competitive networks. Despite the potential for these mechanisms to create conditions under which the loss of one competitor triggers the loss of others, we lack the knowledge needed to judge their importance for coexistence in nature. Progress requires borrowing insight from the study of multitrophic interaction networks, and coupling empirical data to models of competition.

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Figure 1: Coexistence mechanisms that emerge only with more than two competitors.
Figure 2: A competitive network and an extinction cascade.
Figure 3: A data-driven approach to modelling species dynamics.

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Acknowledgements

Comments from the Plant Ecology group at ETH Zürich improved the manuscript. We thank R. Freckleton for feedback on the limitations of relative-yield approaches and A. Ferrera for insightful discussions on stability. Conversations with S. Pacala, S. Levin, A. Hastings and A. Ives helped to clarify our thoughts on higher-order interactions. J.M.L. is supported by US National Science Foundation (NSF) grant 1644641, J.B. is funded by the European Research Council through an Advanced Grant, P.B.A. is supported by NSF grant 1353078 and S.A. is supported by NSF grant 1148867.

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Correspondence to Jonathan M. Levine.

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Author Contributions All authors researched the literature to assemble the review. J.M.L. assembled the first draft of the paper, with all authors contributing individual sections and revisions.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks A. Golubski, E. Thebault and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Levine, J., Bascompte, J., Adler, P. et al. Beyond pairwise mechanisms of species coexistence in complex communities. Nature 546, 56–64 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22898

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