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Am Nat. 2001 Feb;157(2):107-25. doi: 10.1086/318631.

Interspecific competition in plants: how well do current methods answer fundamental questions?

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  • 1Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Biological Laboratories, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


Accurately quantifying and interpreting the processes and outcomes of competition among plants is essential for evaluating theories of plant community organization and evolution. We argue that many current experimental approaches to quantifying competitive interactions introduce size bias, which may significantly impact the quantitative and qualitative conclusions drawn from studies. Size bias generally arises when estimates of competitive ability are erroneously influenced by the initial size of competing individuals. We employ a series of quantitative thought experiments to demonstrate the potential for size bias in analysis of four traditional experimental designs (pairwise, replacement series, additive series, and response surfaces) either when only final measurements are available or when both initial and final measurements are collected. We distinguish three questions relevant to describing competitive interactions: Which species dominates? Which species gains? and How do species affect each other? The choice of experimental design and measurements greatly influences the scope of inference permitted. Conditions under which the latter two questions can give biased information are tabulated. We outline a new approach to characterizing competition that avoids size bias and that improves the concordance between research question and experimental design. The implications of the choice of size metrics used to quantify both the initial state and the responses of elements in interspecific mixtures are discussed. The relevance of size bias in competition studies with organisms other than plants is also discussed.

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