Competition for water and species coexistence in phenologically structured annual plant communities

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

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Both competition for water and phenological variation are important determinants of plant community structure, but ecologists lack a synthetic theory for how they affect coexistence outcomes. We developed an analytically tractable model of water competition for Mediterranean annual communities and demonstrated that variation in phenology alone can maintain high diversity in spatially homogenous assemblages of water-limited plants. We modelled a system where all water arrives early in the season and species vary in their ability to grow under drying conditions. As a consequence, species differ in growing season length and compete by shortening the growing season of their competitors. This model replicates and offers mechanistic explanations for patterns observed in empirical studies of how phenology influences coexistence among Mediterranean annuals. Additionally, we found that a decreasing, concave-up trade-off between growth rate and access to water can maintain high diversity under simple but realistic assumptions. High diversity is possible because: (1) later plants escape competition after their earlier season competitors have gone to seed and (2) early-season species are more than compensated for their shortened growing season by a growth rate advantage. Together, these mechanisms provide an explanation for how phenologically variable annual plant species might coexist when competing only for water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1110-1125
Number of pages16
JournalEcology letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • annual plants
  • coexistence
  • ecohydrology
  • ecophysiology
  • phenology
  • water competition


Dive into the research topics of 'Competition for water and species coexistence in phenologically structured annual plant communities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this