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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2012

Size- and food-dependent growth drives patterns of competitive dominance along productivity gradients

Huss, Magnus; Gårdmark, Anna; van Leeuwen, Anieke; de Roos, André M


Patterns of coexistence among competing species exhibiting size- and food-dependent growth remain largely unexplored. Here we studied mechanisms behind coexistence and shifts in competitive dominance in a size-structured fish guild, representing sprat and herring stocks in the Baltic Sea, using a physiologically structured model of competing populations. The influence of degree of resource overlap and the possibility of undergoing ontogenetic diet shifts were studied as functions of zooplankton and zoobenthos productivity. By imposing different size-dependent mortalities, we could study the outcome of competition under contrasting environmental regimes representing poor and favorable growth conditions. We found that the identity of the dominant species shifted between low and high productivity. Adding a herring-exclusive benthos resource only provided a competitive advantage over sprat when size-dependent mortality was high enough to allow for rapid growth in the zooplankton niche. Hence, the importance of a bottom-up effect of varying productivity was dependent on a strong top-down effect. Although herring could depress shared resources to lower levels than could sprat and also could access an exclusive resource, the smaller size at maturation of sprat allowed it to coexist with herring and, in some cases, exclude it. Our model system, characterized by interactions among size cohorts, allowed for consumer coexistence even at full resource overlap at intermediate productivities when size-dependent mortality was low. Observed shifts in community patterns were crucially dependent on the explicit consideration of size- and food-dependent growth. Accordingly, we argue that accounting for food-dependent growth and size-dependent interactions is necessary to better predict changes in community structure and dynamics following changes in major ecosystem drivers such as resource productivity and mortality, which are fundamental for our ability to manage exploitation of living resources in, e.g., fisheries.


coexistence; community structure; competition; diet shifts; food-dependent growth; herring; productivity; size-dependent mortality; size structure; sprat

Published in

2012, Volume: 93, number: 4, pages: 847-857