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Conflict over non-partitioned resources may explain between-species differences in declines: the anthropogenic competition hypothesis

Higginson, Andrew D.
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2017 v.71 no.7 pp. 99
Bombus, biodiversity, birds, breeding, data collection, evolutionarily stable strategy, extinction, game theory, habitat destruction, habitats, humans, models, nesting, nesting sites, population dynamics, population size, prediction
Human alterations of habitats are causing declines in many species worldwide. The extent of declines varies greatly among closely related species, for often unknown reasons that must be understood in order to maintain biodiversity. An overlooked factor is that seasonally breeding species compete for nest sites, which are increasingly limited in many anthropogenically degraded environments. I used evolutionary game theory to predict the outcome of competition between individuals that differ in their competitive ability and timing of nesting. A range of species following evolutionarily stable strategies can co-exist when there are sufficient nest sites, but my model predicts that a reduction in nest site availability has greater impacts on late-nesting species, especially the stronger competitors, whereas early-nesting, stronger species decline only slightly. These predictions are supported by data on 221 bird and 43 bumblebee species worldwide. Restoration and provision of nest sites should be an urgent priority in conservation efforts. More broadly, these results indicate a new ecological principle of potentially widespread importance: rapid reductions in the abundance of resources for which species’ preferences have not diversified will result in unprecedented conflicts that reduce the potential for species co-existence. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Understanding the causes of species declines is crucial to preventing the losses. Whilst much work on species vulnerability shows broad scale effects, an enduring mystery is the variation in population trends between closely related species. I combined evolutionary modelling with three global-scale long-term data sets to reveal that competition for scarce nest sites causes variation in declines. The impact of the loss of nest sites on differential declines among closely related species from very different taxa indicates a new ecological principle of widespread importance: the effect of habitat degradation on competition among species. A lack of differentiation of nest site preferences means that—now nest sites are more limited—some species may be driving others to extinction. This phenomenon is likely to occur for any other non-partitioned resources that rapidly, on an evolutionary timescale, are now limiting population sizes.