Species richness increases fitness differences, but does not affect niche differences

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A key question in ecology is what limits species richness. Modern coexistence theory presents the persistence of species as a balance between niche differences and fitness differences that favour and hamper coexistence, respectively. With most applications focusing on species pairs, however, we know little about if and how this balance changes with species richness. Here, we apply recently developed definitions of niche and fitness differences, based on invasion analysis, to multispecies communities. We present the first mathematical proof that, for invariant average interaction strengths, the average fitness difference among species increases with richness, while the average niche difference stays constant. Extensive simulations with more complex models and analyses of empirical data confirmed these mathematical results. Combined, our work suggests that, as species accumulate in ecosystems, ever-increasing fitness differences will at some point exceed constant niche differences, limiting species richness. Our results contribute to a better understanding of coexistence multispecies communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2611-2623
Number of pages13
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number12
Early online date16 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • coexistence
  • competition
  • higher-order interactions
  • multispecies
  • niche and fitness differences


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