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Experimental evidence for fundamental, and not realized, niche partitioning in a plant–herbivore community interaction network

Augustyn, Willem J., Anderson, Bruce, Ellis, Allan G.
The journal of animal ecology 2016 v.85 no.4 pp. 994-1003
Cicadellidae, Restionaceae, community structure, experimental design, host plants, interspecific competition, niches, predation
Patterns of niche partitioning can result from local ecological interactions (e.g. interspecific competition) occurring within a contemporary time frame (realized niche partitioning). Alternatively, they may represent the end product of historical processes acting over long time frames (fundamental niche partitioning). Niche partitioning is often detected by analysing patterns of resource use within communities, but experiments are rarely conducted to test whether patterns of non‐overlapping resource use reflect realized or fundamental niche partitioning. We studied a community of restio leafhoppers from the genus Cephalelus and their host plants, the Restionaceae (restios). We used network and experimental approaches to determine whether network modularity (a measure of niche partitioning within local communities) reflects fundamental or realized niche partitioning. Using a weighted modularity index for two party networks (e.g. insect–plant), we determined whether the network of this community is modular (i.e. consists of groups of species interacting strongly, with weak interactions between groups). We also aimed to identify specific Cephalelus – restio modules (groups). Using knowledge of module membership to design experiments, we tested whether Cephalelus species from two different modules, Cephalelus uncinatus and Cephalelus pickeri, prefer and perform better on restios from their own modules vs. restios from other modules. These experiments were performed under controlled conditions, eliminating the influences of competition and predation on host choices. The Cephalelus – restio community was modular, implying niche partitioning. Cephalelus also preferred and performed better on restios from their own modules in the absence of local contemporary factors. Most niche partitioning in the investigated Cephalelus community is not caused by local interactions, and thus, host use patterns represent fundamental niches. Our findings highlight the importance of understanding local community structure in the light of processes extrinsic to the local community context.