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The ecological importance of intraspecific variation


Human activity is causing wild populations to experience rapid trait change and local extirpation. The resulting effects on intraspecific variation could have substantial consequences for ecological processes and ecosystem services. Although researchers have long acknowledged that variation among species influences the surrounding environment, only recently has evidence accumulated for the ecological importance of variation within species. We conducted a meta-analysis comparing the ecological effects of variation within a species (intraspecific effects) with the effects of replacement or removal of that species (species effects). We evaluated direct and indirect ecological responses, including changes in abundance (or biomass), rates of ecological processes and changes in community composition. Our results show that intraspecific effects are often comparable to, and sometimes stronger than, species effects. Species effects tend to be larger for direct ecological responses (for example, through consumption), whereas intraspecific effects and species effects tend to be similar for indirect responses (for example, through trophic cascades). Intraspecific effects are especially strong when indirect interactions alter community composition. Our results summarize data from the first generation of studies examining the relative ecological effects of intraspecific variation. Our conclusions can help inform the design of future experiments and the formulation of strategies to quantify and conserve biodiversity.

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We thank the researchers who made their data available for our analysis. We thank K. Kroeker for helpful conversations about the analyses and R. M. Segnitz and members of the Palkovacs Lab for help with preparation of the paper. Funding was provided by the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science, bioGENESIS, Future Earth, University of California Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts, David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DEB no. 1457333 and DEB no. 1556378).

Author information

All authors developed the study idea and participated in data collection. S.D., D.M.P., N.E.T. and E.P.P. performed the statistical analyses. S.D., D.M.P. and E.P.P. led the writing of the paper. All authors prepared and edited the final drafts.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Simone Des Roches.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2: Hedges’ g values (± 95% CIs) grouped by focal species (polygons) and studies for which intraspecific effects are larger (g < −0.3), similar to (−0.3 < g < 0.3) or smaller than (g > 0.3) species effects.
Fig. 3: Hedges’ g values (± 95% CIs) grouped by ecological response and the direct (filled) versus indirect (unfilled) effects of the focal species for which intraspecific effects are larger (g < −0.3), similar to (−0.3 < g < 0.3) or smaller than (g > 0.3) species effects.