A good and fascinating example is that of persistent rarity. Why are so many species in communities rare? What allows species to remain rare for long periods of time, given that small populations should be at greater risk for stochastic extinction? A new preprint from Yenni et al. (1) considers the empirical evidence for one potential explanation for persistent rarity: asymmetric negative frequency dependence (see also Yenni et al. 2012 (2)).
Coexistence theory (Chesson 2000) considers stabilizing mechanisms to be those that allow intraspecific competition to be greater than interspecific competition (often defined as ‘niche’ mechanisms). The strength of such stabilizing mechanisms can be estimated by looking at how a species’ population growth rate is limited by the frequency of conspecifics compared to the frequency of heterospecifics in the community. Negative frequency dependence is expected when stabilizing mechanisms are strong. This allows species to increase when rare, since limitation by conspecifics is low, followed by a decline in growth rates as conspecific frequency increases.
Asymmetric negative frequency dependence may explain persistent rarity, since it suggests especially strong conspecific limitation. As a species’ frequency increases, their growth rate greatly declines and intraspecific interactions, rather than interspecific competition, determine abundances. Species are rare, but also less likely to experience extinctions through competition with other species. The authors suggest that as a result of this, we should expect rare species to have stronger negative frequency dependence, in comparison to more common species. They look for evidence for asymmetric frequency dependence using data from 148 communities collected across multiple taxonomic groups (birds, fish, herpetofauna, invertebrates, mammals, and plants), 5 continents, and 3 trophic levels. The data represented time series of species abundances, which the authors used to estimate negative frequency dependence as the relationship between a species’ frequency in the community and their annual per capita population growth rate.
Several aspects of the results are particularly interesting. First, the authors had to omit rare species that are not persistent, since other processes likely explain the presence of such ephemeral members of communities. The frequency of ephemeral species (not stably coexisting at a local scale), for example, was quite high, particularly in plant communities (average of 82 species per community, of which only 22.6 species were on average identified as ‘persistent’). This may suggest the importance of spatial mechanisms for coexistence or co-occurrence. Their overall prediction of stronger negative frequency dependence in rare species appeared to holds in 46% of the communities they examined, consistently for all of the taxonomic groups but one (herps!). Additionally, the opposite pattern (common species having stronger negative frequency dependence) was never observed.
Rarity in nature is common :-) but not well predicted using most coexistence theory. Many interesting and important questions arise from it, and from results like those shown in Yanni et al. For example, do rare species have rare traits or rare niches? Is the frequency dependent growth rate context dependent (i.e. can a species be strongly limited by conspecifics in one environment but not another)?
*Note I haven’t reproduced any figures here, since this is a preprint. However, it is openly available, so do have a look (link 1 below). I’m not certain if there is a rule of thumb on blogging about preprints, but I imagine it is much like blogging about conference talks. The work may not have been peer reviewed/published yet, but the broad results and ideas remain interesting to discuss.