Order of arrival affects competition in two reef fishes

Many communities experience repeated periods of colonization due to seasonally regenerating habitats or pulsed arrival of young-of-year. When an individual's persistence in a community depends upon the strength of competitive interactions, changes in the timing of arrival relative to the arrival of a competitor can modify competitive strength and, ultimately, establishment in the community. We investigated whether the strength of intracohort competitive interactions between recent settlers of the reef fishes Thalassoma hardwicke and T. quinquevittatum are dependent on the sequence and temporal separation of their arrival into communities. To achieve this, we manipulated the sequence and timing of arrival of each species onto experimental patch reefs by simulating settlement pulses and monitoring survival and aggressive interactions. Both species survived best in the absence of competitors, but when competitors were present, they did best when they arrived at the same time. Survival declined as each species entered the community progressively later than its competitor and as aggression by its competitor increased. Intraspecific effects of resident T. hardwicke were similar to interspecific effects. This study shows that the strength of competition depends not only on the identity of competitors, but also on the sequence and timing of their interactions, suggesting that when examining interaction strengths, it is important to identify temporal variability in the direction and magnitude of their effects. Furthermore, our findings provide empirical evidence for the importance of competitive lotteries in the maintenance of species diversity in demographically open marine systems.

This paper was authored by Shane W. Geange and Adrian C. Stier (me). You can find a copy of the manuscript here, or contact me directly for a PDF. 

Adrian Stier