Stochastic competitive exclusion leads to a cascade of species extinctions

Capitán, José A.Cuenda, SaraAlonso, David. Journal of Theoretical Biology 419 : 137-151 (2017)  DIGITAL CSIC

Community ecology has traditionally relied on the competitive exclusion principle, a piece of common wisdom in conceptual frameworks developed to describe species assemblages. Key concepts in community ecology, such as limiting similarity and niche partitioning, are based on competitive exclusion. However, this classical paradigm in ecology relies on implications derived from simple, deterministic models. Here we show how the predictions of a symmetric, deterministic model about the way extinctions proceed can be utterly different from the results derived from the same model when ecological drift (demographic stochasticity) is explicitly considered. Using analytical approximations to the steady-state conditional probabilities for assemblages with two and three species, we demonstrate that stochastic competitive exclusion leads to a cascade of extinctions, whereas the symmetric, deterministic model predicts a multiple collapse of species. To test the robustness of our results, we have studied the effect of environmental stochasticity and relaxed the species symmetry assumption. Our conclusions highlight the crucial role of stochasticity when deriving reliable theoretical predictions for species community assembly.