Priority effects and habitat complexity affect the strength of competition

Both habitat complexity and priority effects can influence the strength of competitive interactions; however, the independent and synergistic effects of these processes are not well understood. In Moorea, French Polynesia, we conducted a factorial field experiment to quantify the independent and combined effects of priority effects and habitat complexity on the strength of intraspecific competitive interactions among recently settled individuals of a coral reef fish (Thalassoma quinquevittatum: Labridae). Simultaneous arrival of focal individuals with competitors resulted in a 2.89-fold increase in survival relative to reefs where focal individuals arrived 5 days later than competitors (i.e., a priority effect). Increasing habitat complexity resulted in a 1.55-fold increase in survivorship when focal individuals arrived simultaneously with or before competitors. However, increasing habitat complexity did not affect the survivorship of focal individuals arriving 5 days later than competitors. Behavior observations showed that survivorship was negatively correlated with aggression. Aggression by prior residents towards focal individuals was significantly greater when focal individuals arrived 5 days later than competitors than when they arrived simultaneously. Increasing habitat complexity did not reduce aggression. Our results suggest that, when competitors arrive simultaneously, competitive interactions are weak and subordinates are not displaced from complex habitat; increasing habitat complexity increases survival by disrupting predation. Conversely, when competitors arrive at different times, aggression intensifies and increasing habitat complexity does not disrupt predation because competitive subordinates are excluded from habitat resources. This study demonstrates that the strength of competition can be context-dependent and may vary with the timing of competitive interactions and habitat complexity.

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

Adrian Stier