How variation between individuals affects species coexistence

Simon P. Hart, Sebastian J. Schreiber, Jonathan M. Levine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

199 Scopus citations


Although the effects of variation between individuals within species are traditionally ignored in studies of species coexistence, the magnitude of intraspecific variation in nature is forcing ecologists to reconsider. Compelling intuitive arguments suggest that individual variation may provide a previously unrecognised route to diversity maintenance by blurring species-level competitive differences or substituting for species-level niche differences. These arguments, which are motivating a large body of empirical work, have rarely been evaluated with quantitative theory. Here we incorporate intraspecific variation into a common model of competition and identify three pathways by which this variation affects coexistence: (1) changes in competitive dynamics because of nonlinear averaging, (2) changes in species' mean interaction strengths because of variation in underlying traits (also via nonlinear averaging) and (3) effects on stochastic demography. As a consequence of the first two mechanisms, we find that intraspecific variation in competitive ability increases the dominance of superior competitors, and intraspecific niche variation reduces species-level niche differentiation, both of which make coexistence more difficult. In addition, individual variation can exacerbate the effects of demographic stochasticity, and this further destabilises coexistence. Our work provides a theoretical foundation for emerging empirical interests in the effects of intraspecific variation on species diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)825-838
Number of pages14
JournalEcology letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • community assembly
  • competition
  • demographic heterogeneity
  • demographic stochasticity
  • functional traits
  • genetic diversity
  • individual variation
  • intraspecific variation
  • nonlinear averaging
  • species coexistence


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