Subsidies mediate interactions between communities across space

Publication
Oikos
Date

Abstract

Most spatial ecology focuses on how species dispersal affects community dynamics and coexistence. Ecosystems, however, are also commonly connected by flows of resources. We experimentally tested how neighbouring communities indirectly influence each other in absence of dispersal, via resource exchanges. Using two-patch microcosm meta-ecosystems, we manipulated community composition and dynamics, by varying separately species key functional traits (autotroph versus heterotroph species and size of consumer species) and trophic structure of aquatic communities (species growing alone or in presence of competitors or predators). We then analysed the effects of species functional traits and trophic structure on communities connected through spatial subsidies in the absence of actual dispersal. Both functional traits and trophic structure strongly affected dynamics across neighbouring communities. Heterotroph communities connected to autotroph neighbours developed better than with heterotroph neighbours, such that coexistence of competitors was determined by the functional traits of the neighbouring community. Densities in autotroph communities were also strikingly higher when receiving subsidies from heterotroph communities compared to their own subsidies when grown in isolated ecosystems. In contrast, communities connected to predator-dominated ecosystems collapsed, without any direct contact with the predators. Our results demonstrate that because community composition and structure modify the distribution of biomass within a community, they may also affect communities connected through subsidies through quantitative and qualitative changes of detritus flows. This stresses that ecosystem management should account for such interdependencies mediated by spatial subsidies, given that local community alterations cascade across space onto other ecosystems even if species dispersal is completely absent.