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Ecology. 2010 Nov;91(11):3252-60.

Niche complementarity due to plasticity in resource use: plant partitioning of chemical N forms.

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  • 1Inventory and Monitoring Program, Rocky Mountain Network, National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado 80525, USA.


Niche complementarity, in which coexisting species use different forms of a resource, has been widely invoked to explain some of the most debated patterns in ecology, including maintenance of diversity and relationships between diversity and ecosystem function. However, classical models assume resource specialization in the form of distinct niches, which does not obviously apply to the broadly overlapping resource use in plant communities. Here we utilize an experimental framework based on competition theory to test whether plants partition resources via classical niche differentiation or via plasticity in resource use. We explore two alternatives: niche preemption, in which individuals respond to a superior competitor by switching to an alternative, less-used resource, and dominant plasticity, in which superior competitors exhibit high resource use plasticity and shift resource use depending on the competitive environment. We determined competitive ability by measuring growth responses with and without neighbors over a growing season and then used 15N tracer techniques to measure uptake of different nitrogen (N) forms in a field setting. We show that four alpine plant species of differing competitive abilities have statistically indistinguishable uptake patterns (nitrate > ammonium > glycine) in their fundamental niche (without competitors) but differ in whether they shift these uptake patterns in their realized niche (with competitors). Competitively superior species increased their uptake of the most available N form, ammonium, when in competition with the rarer, competitively inferior species. In contrast, the competitively inferior species did not alter its N uptake pattern in competition. The existence of plasticity in resource use among the dominant species provides a mechanism that helps to explain the manner by which plant species with broadly overlapping resource use might coexist.

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