Competition for time: Evidence for an overlooked, diversity-maintaining competitive mechanism

Jacob I. Levine, Stephen W. Pacala, Jonathan M. Levine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding how diversity is maintained in plant communities requires that we first understand the mechanisms of competition for limiting resources. In ecology, there is an underappreciated but fundamental distinction between systems in which the depletion of limiting resources reduces the growth rates of competitors and systems in which resource depletion reduces the time available for competitors to grow, a mechanism we call ‘competition for time’. Importantly, modern community ecology and our framing of the coexistence problem are built on the implicit assumption that competition reduces the growth rate. However, recent theoretical work suggests competition for time may be the predominant competitive mechanism in a broad array of natural communities, a significant advance given that when species compete for time, diversity-maintaining trade-offs emerge organically. In this study, we first introduce competition for time conceptually using a simple model of interacting species. Then, we perform an experiment in a Mediterranean annual grassland to determine whether competition for time is an important competitive mechanism in a field system. Indeed, we find that species respond to increased competition through reductions in their lifespan rather than their rate of growth. In total, our study suggests competition for time may be overlooked as a mechanism of biodiversity maintenance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14422
JournalEcology letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • annual plants
  • biodiversity
  • competition for light
  • competition for water
  • mechanistic competition models
  • phenology
  • resource competition
  • species coexistence
  • succession
  • temporal niche


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