Demographic stochasticity alters expected outcomes in experimental and simulated non-neutral communities

25 June 2019

Legault, Geoffrey; Fox, Jeremy; Melbourne, Brett

Theory has shown that the effects of demographic stochasticity on communities may depend on the magnitude of fitness differences between species. In particular, it has been suggested that demographic stochasticity has the potential to significantly alter competitive outcomes when fitness differences are small (nearly neutral), but that it has minimal effects when fitness differences are large (highly non-neutral). Here we test such theory experimentally and extend it to examine how demographic stochasticity affects exclusion frequency and mean densities of consumers in simple, but non-neutral, consumer-resource communities. We used experimental microcosms of protists and rotifers feeding on a bacterial resource to test how varying absolute population sizes (a driver of demographic stochasticity) affected the probability of competitive exclusion of the weakest competitor. To explore whether demographic stochasticity could explain our experimental results, and to generalize beyond our experiment, we paired the experiment with a continuous-time stochastic model of resource competition, which we simulated for 11 different fitness inequalities between competiting consumers. Consistent with theory, in both our experiments and our simulations we found that demographic stochasticity altered competitive outcomes in communities where fitness differences were small. However, we also found that demographic stochasticity alone could affect communities in other ways, even when fitness differences between competitors were large. Specifically, demographic stochasticity altered mean densities of both weak and strong competitors in experimental and simulated communities. These findings highlight how demographic stochasticity can change both competitive outcomes in non-neutral communities and the processes underlying overall community dynamics.