Adaptability Is A Stronger Trait Than Being Competitive

PhD candidate Graham Zemunik conducting vegetation surveys along the Jurien Bay dunes in Western Australia. Image: Etienne Laliberté

Scientists have long debated whether an area is rich in plant life because of competition or because of adaptability.

A new study in a biodiversity hotspot in Australia suggests plant species richness is controlled not by resource competition, but by adaptability of individual plant species to the local environment.

Etienne Laliberté, a PhD student at the University of Western Australia, and colleagues tested both theories at once.

The team surveyed plants in an ancient dune ecosystem in Western Australia where variation in soil properties drives changes in plant diversity.

To reconstruct changes to species richness and soil composition over time, they relied on a set of dune sites all relatively close by with similar attributes but different ages.

They discovered plant species richness was mostly determined by filtering, in which species poorly adapted to local environmental conditions are filtered out of the original species pool

This challenges the prevailing view that resource competition controls local plant diversity, and instead suggest processes operating over longer evolutionary time scales are more important.

The study is published in the journal Science.

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