Background: The drivers of species co-existence in local communities are especially enigmatic for assemblages of morphologically cryptic species. Here we characterize the colonization dynamics and abundance of nine species of Caenorhabditis nematodes in neotropical French Guiana, the most speciose known assemblage of this genus, with resource use overlap and notoriously similar external morphology despite deep genomic divergence.
Methods: To characterize the dynamics and specificity of colonization and exploitation of ephemeral resource patches, we conducted manipulative field experiments and the largest sampling effort to date for Caenorhabditis outside of Europe. This effort provides the first in-depth quantitative analysis of substrate specificity for Caenorhabditis in natural, unperturbed habitats.
Results: We amassed a total of 626 strain isolates from nine species of Caenorhabditis among 2865 substrate samples. With the two new species described here (C. astrocarya and C. dolens), we estimate that our sampling procedures will discover few additional species of these microbivorous animals in this tropical rainforest system. We demonstrate experimentally that the two most prevalent species (C. nouraguensis and C. tropicalis) rapidly colonize fresh resource patches, whereas at least one rarer species shows specialist micro-habitat fidelity.
Conclusion: Despite the potential to colonize rapidly, these ephemeral patchy resources of rotting fruits and flowers are likely to often remain uncolonized by Caenorhabditis prior to their complete decay, implying dispersal-limited resource exploitation. We hypothesize that a combination of rapid colonization, high ephemerality of resource patches, and species heterogeneity in degree of specialization on micro-habitats and life histories enables a dynamic co-existence of so many morphologically cryptic species of Caenorhabditis.
Keywords: Caenorhabditis astrocarya; Caenorhabditis dolens; Caenorhabditis elegans; Habitat sharing; Metapopulations; Morphological crypsis; Species co-existence; Species richness.