The coexistence of ecologically similar species
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The biological diversity on planet Earth is astounding. Understanding the origins of this diversity, and how it is maintained, are the twin goals of ecology and evolutionary biology. An early and oft-repeated insight in this investigation is that that similar organisms cannot coexist indefinitely. Theory predicts that individuals and species will compete for limited resources and whichever has even a slight advantage will drive all others extinct in a process known as ‘competitive exclusion’. By diversifying, species avoid competition, thereby ‘stabilizing’ their coexistence. Yet natural systems often display levels of diversity that are surprisingly high, given this theory and investigations of how the similarity of coexisting species is maintained have received much less attention. Using a combination of field studies and experiments I demonstrate that highly similar species of freshwater amphipods may compete for resources without resulting in competitive exclusion. These findings suggest that there exist a range of interactions among Hyalella amphipods, ranging from strong stabilizing effects due to ecological trade-offs, to weakly stabilizing effects, to a total lack of stabilizing effects among various pairs of species in this system. These findings demonstrate how the relative strength of stabilizing forces may vary among coexisting species. Although much effort has been dedicated to enumerating and classifying the ways in which ecological and evolutionary forces promote diversity among species, there has been far less attention paid to mechanisms such as convergent evolution, habitat filtering, competition for non-substitutable resources, and non-ecological speciation, among others. I surveyed current theory that may explain the high levels of similarity among species often found in natural systems. I describe how several ecological and evolutionary mechanisms may operate to promote the coexistence of similar species and present results from new theoretical combinations of mechanisms to demonstrate how they may further act in concert with one another.