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The effect of competition on species' distributions depends on coexistence, rather than scale alone

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One of the key problems in ecology is our need to anticipate the set of locations in which a species will be found (hereafter species' distributions). A major source of uncertainty in these models is the role of interactions among species (hereafter biotic interactions). Unfortunately, it is difficult to directly study this problem at large spatial scales and we lack a clear understanding of when biotic interactions shape species' distributions. We show a simple, direct link between the ease of species' coexistence and the importance of competition for shaping species' distributions. We show that increasing the ease of species' coexistence reduces the influence of biotic interactions. Changing the spatial scale of the analysis can reduce the influence of species interactions, but only when it promotes regional coexistence. Using these ideas, we analyze the conditions under which biotic interactions alter species' distributions in a Lotka–Volterra model of competition along an environmental gradient and argue that coexistence theory, rather than scale alone, provides a guide to the influence of species interactions. Our results provide a guide to the facets of biotic interactions that are necessary to anticipate their effects on species distributions. As such, we expect our work will help the development of more realistic distribution models.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2015

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