Compensatory dynamics are rare in natural ecological communities

J. E. Houlahan, D. J. Currie, K. Cottenie, G. S. Cumming, S. K.M. Ernest, C. S. Findlay, S. D. Fuhlendorf, U. Gaedke, P. Legendre, J. J. Magnuson, B. H. McArdle, E. H. Muldavin, D. Noble, R. Russell, R. D. Stevens, T. J. Willis, I. P. Woiwod, S. M. Wondzell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

234 Scopus citations


In population ecology, there has been a fundamental controversy about the relative importance of competition-driven (density-dependent) population regulation vs. abiotic influences such as temperature and precipitation. The same issue arises at the community level; are population sizes driven primarily by changes in the abundances of cooccurring competitors (i.e., compensatory dynamics), or do most species have a common response to environmental factors? Competitive interactions have had a central place in ecological theory, dating back to Gleason, Volterra, Hutchison and MacArthur, and, more recently, Hubbell's influential unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. If competitive interactions are important in driving year-to-year fluctuations in abundance, then changes in the abundance of one species should generally be accompanied by compensatory changes in the abundances of others. Thus, one necessary consequence of strong compensatory forces is that, on average, species within communities will covary negatively. Here we use measures of community covariance to assess the prevalence of negative covariance in 41 natural communities comprising different taxa at a range of spatial scales. We found that species in natural communities tended to co vary positively rather than negatively, the opposite of what would be expected if compensatory dynamics were important. These findings suggest that abiotic factors such as temperature and precipitation are more important than competitive interactions in driving year-to-year fluctuations in species abundance within communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3273-3277
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
StatePublished - Feb 27 2007


  • Biological interactions
  • Community dynamics
  • Negative covariance
  • Neutral models
  • Zero-sum


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