Frugivorous fish play a prominent role in seed dispersal and reproductive dynamics of plant communities in riparian and floodplain habitats of tropical regions worldwide. In Neotropical wetlands, many plant species have fleshy fruits and synchronize their fruiting with the flood season, when fruit-eating fish forage in forest and savannahs for periods of up to 7 months. We conducted a comprehensive analysis to examine the evolutionary origin of fish-fruit interactions, describe fruit traits associated with seed dispersal and seed predation, and assess the influence of fish size on the effectiveness of seed dispersal by fish (ichthyochory). To date, 62 studies have documented 566 species of fruits and seeds from 82 plant families in the diets of 69 Neotropical fish species. Fish interactions with flowering plants are likely to be as old as 70 million years in the Neotropics, pre-dating most modern bird-fruit and mammal-fruit interactions, and contributing to long-distance seed dispersal and possibly the radiation of early angiosperms. Ichthyochory occurs across the angiosperm phylogeny, and is more frequent among advanced eudicots. Numerous fish species are capable of dispersing small seeds, but only a limited number of species can disperse large seeds. The size of dispersed seeds and the probability of seed dispersal both increase with fish size. Large-bodied species are the most effective seed dispersal agents and remain the primary target of fishing activities in the Neotropics. Thus, conservation efforts should focus on these species to ensure continuity of plant recruitment dynamics and maintenance of plant diversity in riparian and floodplain ecosystems.
Competition plays a central role in the maintenance of biodiversity. A backbone of classic niche theory is that local coexistence of competitors is favoured by the contraction or divergence of species' niches. However, this effect should depend on the diversity of resources available in the local environment, particularly when resources vary in multiple ecological dimensions. Here, we investigated how available resource breadth (i.e. prey diversity) and competition together shape multidimensional niche variation (between and within individuals) and interspecific niche overlap in 42 populations of congeneric tropical frog species. We modelled realized niches in two key trophic dimensions (prey size and carbon stable isotopes) and sampled available food resources to quantify two-dimensional resource breadth. We found a 14-fold variation in multidimensional population niche width across populations, most of which was accounted for by within-individual diet variation. This striking variation was predicted by an interaction whereby individual niche breadth increased with resource breadth and decreased with the number of congeneric competitors. These ecological gradients also interact to influence the degree of niche overlap between species, which surprisingly decreased with population total niche width, providing novel insights on how similar species can coexist in local communities. Together, our results emphasize that patterns of exploitation of resources in multiple dimensions are driven by both competitive interactions and extrinsic factors such as local resource breadth.
Although neglected by classic niche theory, individual variation is now recognized as a prevalent phenomenon in nature with evolutionary and ecological relevance. Recent theory suggests that differences in individual variation across competitors can affect species coexistence and community patterns. However, the degree of individual variation is flexible across wild populations and we still know little about the ecological drivers of this variation across populations of single species and, especially, across coexisting species. Here, we aimed to (a) elucidate the major drivers of individual niche variation in natural communities and (b) to determine how consistent this variation is across coexisting species and communities. We analysed natural patterns of individual-level niche variation in four species of coexisting generalist frogs across a wide range of tropical communities. Specifically, we used gut contents and stable isotopes (δ C and δ N) from frog species and their prey to quantify individual niche specialization. Then, we combined data on local community structure, availability of prey, phylogenetic relationships and predator-prey size models to test how this variation is related to four ecological factors which are predicted to be key drivers of individual specialization: intraspecific competition, interspecific competition, ecological opportunity (i.e., diversity of resources) and predation. We found that the degree of individual trophic specialization varied by up to ninefold across populations within the same species. This sizable variation in trophic specialization across populations was at least partially explained by gradients of density of competitors (both conspecifics and heterospecifics) and intraguild predation. However, the specific relationships between individual specialization and these ecological gradients were strongly species-specific. As consequences, the identity of the species with more individual variation changed among sites and there was typically no spatial correlation in the degree of individual specialization across coexisting species. Our results show that individual niche specialization within and across species can be strongly context-dependent and that hierarchies of individual variation among coexisting species are not necessarily consistent across communities. Recent theory suggests that this pattern could lead to concurrent changes in competitive interactions across sites and thereby could play a key role in species coexistence at the landscape level. Our results suggest that individual variation across and within coexisting species has the potential to affect not only species coexistence at local communities, but also regional diversity patterns.
The inherently multidimensional nature of the niche has not yet been integrated into the investigation of individual niche specialization within populations. We propose a framework for modeling the between- and within-individual components of the population niche as a set of variance-covariance matrices, which can be visualized with ellipses or ellipsoids. These niche components can be inferred using multiple response mixed models, and can incorporate diverse types of data, including diet composition, stable isotopes, spatial location, and other continuous measures of niche dimensions. We outline how considering both individual and population niches in multiple dimensions may enhance our understanding of key concepts in ecology and evolution. Considering multiple dimensions as well as the within-individual component of variation can lead to more meaningful measures of niche overlap between species. The impact of a population on its food web or ecosystem can depend on the degree of individual variation (via Jensen's inequality), and we suggest how the dimensionality of individual specialization could amplify this effect. Finally, we draw from concepts in quantitative genetics and the study of animal personalities to propose new hypotheses about the ecological and evolutionary basis of niche shifts in multiple dimensions. We illustrate key ideas using empirical data from sea otters, wetland frogs, and threespine stickleback, and discuss outstanding questions about the consequences of multidimensional niche variation. Setting variation among individuals in an explicitly multivariate framework has the potential to transform our understanding of a range of ecological and evolutionary processes.
In seasonal tropical regions, rainfall and/or temporary floods during the wet season generally increase the abundance and diversity of food resources to many consumers as compared to the dry season. Therefore, seasonality can affect intraspecific competition and ecological opportunity, which are two important ecological mechanisms underlying population and individual niche variations. Here, we took advantage of the strong seasonality in the Pantanal wetlands to investigate how within‐ and between‐individual diet variations relate to seasonal population niche dynamics of the tetra fish Astyanax lacustris. We quantified dietary niche using gut contents and stable isotopes. Tetras had higher gut fullness and better body condition in the wet season, suggesting that competition is more intense in the dry season. The population niche was broader in the wet season due to an increase in diet divergence between individuals, in spite of potential stronger competition in the dry season. We posit that low ecological opportunity in the dry season limits the diversifying effect of intraspecific competition, constraining population niche expansion. Our results add new insights on how seasonality affects population and individual diets, indicating that intraspecific competition and ecological opportunity interact to determine temporal niche variations in seasonal environments.
Individual decisions regarding how, why and when organisms interact with one another and with their environment scale up to shape patterns and processes in communities. Recent evidence has firmly established the prevalence of intraspecific variation in nature and its relevance in community ecology, yet challenges associated with collecting data on large numbers of individual conspecifics and heterospecifics have hampered integration of individual variation into community ecology. Nevertheless, recent technological and statistical advances in GPS‐tracking, remote sensing and behavioural ecology offer a toolbox for integrating intraspecific variation into community processes. More than simply describing where organisms go, movement data provide unique information about interactions and environmental associations from which a true individual‐to‐community framework can be built. By linking the movement paths of both conspecifics and heterospecifics with environmental data, ecologists can now simultaneously quantify intraspecific and interspecific variation regarding the Eltonian (biotic interactions) and Grinnellian (environmental conditions) factors underpinning community assemblage and dynamics, yet substantial logistical and analytical challenges must be addressed for these approaches to realize their full potential. Across communities, empirical integration of Eltonian and Grinnellian factors can support conservation applications and reveal metacommunity dynamics via tracking‐based dispersal data. As the logistical and analytical challenges associated with multi‐species tracking are surmounted, we envision a future where individual movements and their ecological and environmental signatures will bring resolution to many enduring issues in community ecology.
Tropical rainforests support the greatest diversity of small mammals in the world, yet we have little understanding about the mechanisms that promote the coexistence of species. Diet partitioning can favor coexistence by lessening competition, and interspecific differences in body size and habitat use are usually proposed to be associated with trophic divergence. However, the use of classic dietary methods (e.g. stomach contents) is challenging in small mammals, particularly in community-level studies, thus we used stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) to infer about trophic niche. We investigated i) how trophic niche is partitioned among rodent and marsupial species in three Atlantic forest sites and ii) if interspecific body size and locomotor habit inequalities can constitute mechanisms underlying the isotopic niche partitioning. We found that rodents occupied a broad isotopic niche space with species distributed in different trophic levels and relying on diverse basal carbon sources (C3 and C4 plants). Surprisingly, on the other hand, marsupials showed a narrow isotopic niche, both in δ13C and δ15N dimensions, which is partially overlapped with rodents, contradicting their description as omnivores and generalists proposed classic dietary studies. Although body mass differences did not explained the divergence in isotopic values among species, groups of species with different locomotor habit presented clear differences in the position of the isotopic niche space, indicating that the use of different forest strata can favor trophic niche partitioning in small mammals communities. We suggest that anthropogenic impacts, such as habitat modification (logging, harvesting), can simplify the vertical structure of ecosystems and collapse the diversity of basal resources, which might affect negatively small mammals communities in Atlantic forests.
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