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The macroecological dynamics of species coexistence in birds

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Ecological communities are assembled from the overlapping of species in geographic space, but the mechanisms facilitating or limiting such overlaps are difficult to resolve. Here, we combine phylogenetic, morphological and environmental data to model how multiple processes regulate the origin and maintenance of geographic range overlap across 1,115 pairs of avian sister species globally. We show that coexistence cannot be adequately predicted by either dispersal-assembly (that is, biogeographic) models or niche-assembly models alone. Instead, our results overwhelmingly support an integrated model with different assembly processes dominating at different stages of coexistence. The initial attainment of narrow geographic overlap is dictated by intrinsic dispersal ability and the time available for dispersal, whereas wider coexistence is largely dependent on niche availability, increasing with ecosystem productivity and divergence in niche-related traits, and apparently declining as communities become saturated with species. Furthermore, although coexistence of any individual pair of species is highly stochastic, we find that integrating assembly processes allows broad variation in the incidence and extent of coexistence to be predicted with reasonable accuracy. Our findings demonstrate how phylogenetic data coupled with environmental factors and functional traits can begin to clarify the multi-layered processes shaping the distribution of biodiversity at large spatial scales.

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Fig. 1: Models of species coexistence.
Fig. 2: Historical, intrinsic and environmental predictors of sympatry in birds.
Fig. 3: Relative support for different coexistence scenarios
Fig. 4: Scale dependency in the predictability of coexistence.

Change history

  • 18 June 2019

    The Supplementary Data file initially published online was corrupted and was replaced on 18th June 2019.


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We are grateful to C. Cooney, C. Trisos and members of the Jetz Lab for feedback, helpful discussions and comments that greatly improved the manuscript. This research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research VENI grant 863.13.003 (to A.L.P.), NASA Biodiversity grant NNX11AP72G and NSF grants NSF DBI 1262600, DBI 0960550 and DEB 1026764 (to W.J.), the Oxford Clarendon Fund and US-UK Fulbright Commission (to C.S.), and the John Fell Fund and NERC grant NE/I028068/1 (to J.A.T.). We thank many museums for access to specimens, and in particular the Natural History Museum at Tring (see Supplementary information for an expanded list of contributing individuals and institutions).

Author information




A.L.P., W.J., C.S. and J.A.T. conceived the study. C.S., J.A.T. and W.J. contributed data. A.L.P. performed the analysis and wrote the first draft. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alex L. Pigot.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–9, Supplementary Tables 1–5

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Supplementary Data

A .zip file containing the code and data used in the analysis

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A description of the contents of Supplementary Data .zip file, which contains three folders: ‘Code’,‘InputData’ and ‘Output’

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Pigot, A.L., Jetz, W., Sheard, C. et al. The macroecological dynamics of species coexistence in birds. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1112–1119 (2018).

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