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Phenotypic plasticity promotes species coexistence


Ecological explanations for species coexistence assume that species’ traits, and therefore the differences between species, are fixed on short timescales. However, species’ traits are not fixed, but can instead change rapidly as a consequence of phenotypic plasticity. Here we use a combined experimental–theoretical approach to demonstrate that plasticity in response to interspecific competition between two aquatic plants allows for species coexistence where competitive exclusion is otherwise predicted to occur. Our results show that rapid trait changes in response to a shift in the competitive environment can promote coexistence in a way that is not captured by common measures of niche differentiation.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of study design.
Fig. 2: Effects of plasticity on species coexistence.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available via Zenodo at

Code availability

The R code used to analyse the data is available via Zenodo at


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We thank A. Reid, A. Bieger, M.-J. Mächler, S. Schmid, L. Willi, C. Wälthi, M. de Oliveira Negreiros, N. Schumacher and P. Seiler for assistance with the experiments. We also thank C. Pietsch, S. Egloff and A. Seitz from ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, who provided the initial culture of the S. polyrhiza genotype. We thank J. Dwyer and A. Letten for advice on the statistical analyses. Finally, we thank W. Hart for the suggestion and inspiration to pursue this project in the first place.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



C.H., J.M.L., M.M.T. and S.P.H. conceived the problem and designed the experiments; C.H. did the experiments; S.P.H. did the analyses; C.H. and S.P.H. wrote the first draft of the manuscript; S.P.H. led the subsequent writing and all authors contributed to revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon P. Hart.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information

Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks György Barabás, Nicholas Kortessis and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 The effect of plasticity on demographic and competitive rates.

a) Maximum finite rate of growth (λi); and b) sensitivity of focal species i to interspecific competition (αij). Plots show the posterior probability densities of the difference in these competition model parameters between treatments, accounting for correlations in the posterior distributions of the parameters. The vertical dotted lines indicate zero difference between treatments. Positive values indicate parameter values are higher in the heterospecific plasticity-induction treatment. Higher λi and lower αij for focal species i in the heterospecific plasticity-induction treatment will increase invasion growth rates (see equation 3), and therefore the arrows below the plots indicate the direction of parameter change that would favour coexistence by increasing invasion growth rates. Posterior probabilities for increases in each species maximum finite rate of growth (λi) were 0.98 and 0.97 for S. polyrhiza and L. minor, respectively. Posterior probabilities for decreases in each species’ sensitivity to interspecific competition were 0.92 and 0.68 for S. polyrhiza and L. minor, respectively. Point estimates (means) and variability (standard deviations and 2.5 & 97.5 quantiles) calculated from the posterior distributions for each competition model parameter are provided in Supplementary Table 2.

Extended Data Fig. 2 The effect of plasticity on functional traits.

a) Specific leaf area (SLA); and b) the ratio of root length to frond biomass. Plots show the posterior probability densities for the estimate of each trait value, for each species and plasticity treatment. Raw data are shown as points on the x-axis.

Extended Data Fig. 3 The effect of plasticity on trait divergence.

The plots show the posterior probability densities of the difference in specific leaf area (SLA) between the heterospecific competitor and a focal species from the heterospecific vs. conspecific plasticity-induction treatments. The traits of the heterospecific competitor were measured after its own plasticity in response to itself (that is in its own conspecific plasticity-induction treatment). Positive values indicate that trait differences between species increase (that is, there is trait divergence) when the focal species is exposed to interspecific competition (that is, in the heterospecific plasticity treatment) and negative values indicate plasticity causes trait differences between species to decrease (that is, there is trait convergence) when the focal species is exposed to interspecific competition. These contrasting possibilities are indicated by the arrows either side of the dotted vertical line, which represents zero trait divergence/convergence.

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Supplementary details, Figs. 1–3 and Tables 1 and 2.

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Hess, C., Levine, J.M., Turcotte, M.M. et al. Phenotypic plasticity promotes species coexistence. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1256–1261 (2022).

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