Intuitive and broadly applicable definitions of niche and fitness differences

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Explaining nature’s biodiversity is a key challenge for science. To persist, populations must be able to grow faster when rare, a feature called negative frequency dependence and quantified as ‘niche differences’ ((Formula presented.)) in modern coexistence theory. Here, we first show that available definitions of (Formula presented.) differ in how (Formula presented.) link to species interactions, are difficult to interpret and often apply to specific community types only. We then present a new definition of (Formula presented.) that is intuitive and applicable to a broader set of (modelled and empirical) communities than is currently the case, filling a main gap in the literature. Given (Formula presented.), we also redefine fitness differences ((Formula presented.)) and illustrate how (Formula presented.) and (Formula presented.) determine coexistence. Finally, we demonstrate how to apply our definitions to theoretical models and experimental data, and provide ideas on how they can facilitate comparison and synthesis in community ecology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1117-1128
Number of pages12
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2020


  • Coexistence
  • competition
  • fitness differences
  • multispecies
  • mutualism
  • niche differences


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