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Am Nat. 2003 Jul;162(1):93-109. Epub 2003 Jun 27.

Adaptive plasticity in ontogenetic niche shifts stabilizes consumer-resource dynamics.

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  • 1Center for Ecological Research, Kyoto University, Otsu, Shiga 520-2113, Japan. gaku.takimoto@yale.edu


Ontogenetic niche shifts, changes in the diet or habitats of organisms during their ontogeny, are widespread among various animal taxa. Ontogenetic niche shifts introduce stage structure in a population with different stages interacting with different communities and can substantially affect their dynamics. In this article, I use mathematical models to test the hypothesis that adaptive plasticity in the timing of ontogenetic niche shifts has a stabilizing effect on consumer-resource dynamics. Adaptive plasticity allows consumers in one ontogenetic niche to perform an early shift to the next ontogenetic niche if the resource density of the first niche is low. The early shift will reduce predation by the consumer on the scarce resource. On the other hand, adaptive plasticity allows consumers to delay their shift to the next niche if the resource density of the first niche is high. The delayed shift will increase the predation on the abundant resource. As a result, the scarce resource will tend to increase, and the abundant resource will tend to decrease. This causes density-dependent negative feedback in the resource dynamics, which stabilizes the consumer-resource dynamics. To test this hypothesis, I compare three consumer-resource models differing in terms of mechanisms controlling the timing of the ontogenetic niche shift: the fixed-age model assumes that the age at which the ontogenetic niche shift occurs is fixed; the fixed-size model assumes that the size at the shift is fixed; and the adaptive plasticity model assumes that the timing of the shift is such that the individual fitness of the consumer is maximized. I show that only the adaptive plasticity model has a locally stable equilibrium and that the stabilizing effect is due to the density-dependent negative feedback in the resource dynamics. I discuss the ontogenetic niche shifts of lake fish in light of the obtained result.

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