Phenotypic variability promotes diversity and stability in competitive communities

Ecol Lett. 2019 Nov;22(11):1776-1786. doi: 10.1111/ele.13356. Epub 2019 Aug 1.


Intraspecific variation is at the core of evolutionary theory, and yet, from an ecological perspective, we have few robust expectations for how this variation should affect the dynamics of large communities. Here, by adapting an approach from evolutionary game theory, we show that the incorporation of phenotypic variability into competitive networks dramatically alters the dynamics across ecological timescales, stabilising the systems and buffering the communities against demographic perturbations. The beneficial effects of phenotypic variability are strongest when there are substantial differences among phenotypes and when phenotypes are inherited with moderately high fidelity; yet even low levels of variation lead to significant increases in diversity, stability, and robustness. By identifying a simple and ubiquitous stabilising force in competitive communities, this work contributes to our core understanding of how biological diversity is maintained in natural systems.

Keywords: Intraspecific variation; Lotka-Volterra dynamics; coexistence; network theory; replicator dynamics.

Publication types

  • Letter

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biological Variation, Population
  • Ecosystem*
  • Phenotype