Arxiu d'etiquetes: competition

The living space of organisms

We all have our own living space, the place where we feel comfortable, like we were at home. We also have our routines, habits and that list of preferences that make us unique. Each of us, ultimately, have our own ecological niche, an extensive concept for each species that share the Earth with us. From it comes an important ecological processes such as competition or speciation, a key concepts for understanding the assembly and dynamics of natural ecosystems.


When you are asked how you would describe close people, the first thing that comes to your mind is their way of being when you’re with them and what they loves to do. We know what is the first thing they always ask in a restaurant, what annoys them, what sites they like to frequent, what they like to do when they have free time and even how they behave when they like someone. If we have also lived with them, we could guess almost their daily routine since they wake up until they go to bed. Although we do not always have the same behaviour, there are many traits, hobbies and routines that characterize and differentiate us. Each of us have our comfort zone, our hobbies, food preferences and people with whom we love spending our free time.

The dietary preferences of each of us and our routines and hobbies serve as a comparison to illustrate the diversity of ecological niches in the natural world. Source: Flickr, George Redgrave.


This “living space” that all of us have and in which we feel identified, is also comparable to the ecological niche of the organisms. The ecological niche of a species is a concept that always has been presented us as the “occupation”, “profession” or “work” that an organism carries up in the place where it lives (Wikipedia or CONICET), but the definition includes more than that. Hutchinson (1957) defined it as: ” n-dimensional hypervolume, where the dimensions are environmental conditions and resources, that define the requirements of a species to persist over time.” Despite the confusing definition, it is interested to point out the term “n-dimensional” as the ecological niche is based on this idea. An ecological niche is nothing more than all those multidimensional species requirements. In other words, the ecological niche of a species would be everything that involve the species and make it to prosper and survive where it is. Refers, ultimately, to all those variables that affect them in their daily lives, both biological variables -the contact with other species- and the physical and chemical ones-the climate and the habitat where they live-. An ecological niche of a species would be the spectrum of food it eats or can consume, the time of the day in which it is active to perform its functions, the time of the year and the way it carries out the reproduction, the predators and preys, the habitat it tolerates and all those physical and chemical factors that allow this species to remain viable.

These 5 species of warblers of North America seem to occupy the same habitat (the fir), but actually not. The truth is that each warbler occupies a different position in the tree. Source: Biology forums.

To give an illustrative example, let us place ourselves in the African savannah. The main grazing ungulates and those which perform mass migrations are compound by zebras, wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles. At first glance, you might think that their ecological niche is very similar: same habitat, same routine, same predators and same food. The same food? Absolutely not. During migration, zebras go ahead, devouring tall grass, which is the worst quality. They are followed by wildebeest, which eat what remains standing, and these are followed by Thomson gazelle, which eat the high-quality grass, which is starting to grow again.

Although at first glance it may seem that feed on the same food, each species focuses on a different part of the plant. Source: Abierto por vacaciones.


The competitive exclusion principle, proposed by Gause (1934), states that two species occupying the same niche can not coexist in the long term as they come into competition for resources. Thus, in a competitive process for the same ecological niche, there is always a winner and a loser. In the end, one of the competitors is imposed by another, and then two things can happen: the extinction of the loser one (image A) or a traits displacement in order to occupy another niche (image B). In fact, the competitive exclusion principle is behind the current problems with invasive species. Invasive species niche is very similar to native species niche and, when they converge in the same habitat, the invasive species end up displacing native species, as they are better ecological competitors. It also often happens, of course, the opposite: the exotic species is worse than its counterpart and the competitor fails to thrive in the new environment.

Image A | This study was conducted in order to observe the effect of competitive exclusion in two species of protists. Both species occupy almost identical ecological niches, but they are not living together in nature. The density of one falls sharply when they are forced to share the same space, until it eventually disappears. This same process occurs with invasive species. Source: Jocie Broth.
Image B | When the 3 species of Darwin’s finches (in different colors) coexist on the same island, a trait displacement occurs by competitive exclusion. Individuals from the ends tend to have very similar bill depths to those of the other species, resulting in a niche overlap and subsequent competition. The final boundaries are established thanks to this process. Source: Nature.


We have seen that to share ecological niche is synonymous of having conflict between species. However, there is a situation in which problem do not take place. The hypothesis of functional equivalence proposed by Hubbell proclaims that if the niches are identical and the species life parameters (fertility, mortality, dispersion) are also the same, none of them has a competitive advantage over the other, and the battle ends in tables. This fact seems to occur only in a very stable ecosystem in a Panama rainforest island (Barro Colorado). Different species of trees, as having almost identical parameters of life, do not compete between them and are distributed randomly, as if the individuals of different species belong to the same species. Furthermore, it seems that speciation in this kind of rainforest could also occur by chance, which would have caused the high density of species that harbor these forests.

Tropical forests have a tree species density unique in the world. One hectare of tropical forest may contain up to 650 tree species, more than the number of tree species present in both Canada and continental US. Will Hubbell’s functional equivalence theory be behind the explanation for this curious fact? Source: Flickr, Jo.


Speciation, or the creation of new species, usually occurs when new ecological niches are created or the existing become unoccupied. In both cases, to occupy a new ecological niche imply a gradual differentiation from the initial population to become a genetically distinct species. As an example of formation of new ecological niches we have the case of the emergence of angiosperms. Their booming opened many new possibilities, thanks both to increasing diversity of seeds and fruits (which, in turn, increased the number of specialized species) and the emergence of complex flowers, which allowed the explosion of many pollinators (facilitating the emergence of new insectivores). As an example of unoccupied niche, there is the famous case of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. Dinosaurs dominated a lot of niches, from land to air ecosystems, and even the aquatic environment. Those empty niches was occupied by many mammals, thanks to their high fertility and plasticity (flexibility to adapt into different habitats). That eventually led large ratios of speciation in a short time, what is known as adaptive radiation.

This is Eomaia scansoria, an extinct species of mammals that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. The extinction of the dinosaurs opened up a wide range of possibilities to mammals, which, although they were expanding, remained in the background. Their great plasticity led them to colonize many habitats, by occupying the free ecological niches left by the dinosaurs. Source: Wikipedia.


As we have seen, the ecological niche is behind fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes. All living communities today have been formed thanks to the niches of different species. Through competition, species niches were overlaping, and the communities were assembled like a puzzle. When a piece disappears, another takes its place, playing the role that the other had in the community. However, knowing the whole ecological niche of a species is arduous and, in most cases, impossible. As in human relationships, an exhaustive knowledge of everything that influences the life of a species (or the living space of a person) is of great importance in order to ensure their long-term preservation.



Symbiosis: relationships between living beings

Predation, parasitism, competition… all living beings, besides interacting with the environment, we relate to other living beings. What types of relationships in addition to those you know? Do you feel like to know them?


The group of all living beings in an ecosystem is called biocenosis or community. The biocenosis is formed in turn by different populations, which would be the set of individuals of the same species occupying an area. For survival, it is imperative that relations between them are established, sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful.


They are those that occur between individuals of different species. This interaction it is called symbiosis. Symbiotic relationships can be beneficial to a species, both, or harmful to one of the two.

Detrimental to all the species involved:

Competition: occurs when one or more resources are limiting (food, land, light, soil …). This relationship is very important in evolution, as it allows natural selection acts by promoting the survival and reproduction of the most successful species according to their physiology, behavior …

Las selvas son un claro ejemplo de competencia de los vegetales en busca de la luz. Selva de Kuranda, Australia. Foto de Mireia Querol
Rainforests are a clear example of competition between vegetals in the search for light. Kuranda rainforest, Australia. Photo by Mireia Querol
One species has benefits and the other is detrimented:
  • Predation: occurs when one species (predator) feeds on another (prey). This is the case of cats, wolves, sharks
foca, león marino,
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) jumping to depretade a marine mamal, maybe a sea lion. Photo taken from HQ images.
  • Parasitism: one species (parasite) lives at the expense of other (host) and causes it injury. Fleas, ticks, pathogenic bacteria are the best known, but there are also vertebrate parasites, like the cuckoo that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which will raise their chicks (brood parasitism). Especially interesting are the “zombie parasites”, which modify the behavior of the host. Read this post to learn more!
    Carricero (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) alimentando una cría de cuco (Cuculus canorus). Foto de Harald Olsen
    Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) feeding a cuckoo’s chick (Cuculus canorus). Photo by Harald Olsen

    Parasites that live inside the host’s body are called endoparasites (such as tapeworms), and those who live outside ectoparasites (lice). Parasitism is considered a special type of predation, where predator is smaller than prey, although in most cases does not cause the death of the host. When a parasite causes illness or death of the host, it is called pathogen.

    Cymothoa exigua es un parásito que acaba sustituyendo la lengua de los peces por su propio cuerpo. Foto de Marcello Di Francesco.
    Cymothoa exigua is a parasite that replaces the tongue of fish with their own body. Picture by Marcello Di Francesco.

Kleptoparasitism is stealing food that other species has caught, harvested or prepared. This is the case of some raptors, whose name literally means “thief.” See in this video a case of kleptoparasitism on an owl:

Kleptoparasitism can also occur between individuals of the same species.

One species has benefits and the other is not affected:
  • Commensalism: one species (commensal) uses the remains of food from another species, which does not benefit or harm. This is the case of bearded vultures. It is also commensalism the use as transportation from one species over another (phoresy), as barnacles attached to the body of whales. The inquilinism is a type of commensalism in which a species lives in or on another. This would apply to the woodpeckers and squirrels that nest in trees or barnacles living above mussels. Finally, metabiosis is the use of the remains of a species for protection (like hermit crabs) or to use them as tools.
    El pinzón carpintero (Camarhynchus pallidus) utiliza espinas de cactus o pequeñas ramas para extraer invertebrados de los árboles. Foto de
    The woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) uses cactus spines or small branches to remove invertebrates from the trees. Picture by Dusan Brinkhuizen.
    Both species have benefits:
  • Mutualism: the two species cooperate or are benefited. This is the case of pollinating insects, which get nectar from the flower and the plant is pollinated. Clownfish and anemones would be another typical example, where clown fish gets protection and food scraps while keeps predators away and clean parasites of the sea anemonae. Mutualism can be optional (a species do not need each other to survive) or forced (the species can not live separately). This is the case of mycorrhizae, an association of fungi and roots of certain plants, lichens (mutualism of fungus and algae), leafcutter ants

    Las hormigas Atta y Acromyrmex (hormigas cortadoras de hogas) establecen mutualismo con un hongo (Leucocoprinus gongylophorus), en las que recolectan hojas para proporcionarle nutrientes, y ellas se alimentan de él. Se trata de un mutualismo obligado. Foto tomada de Ants kalytta.
    Atta and Acromyrmex ants (leafcutter ants) establish mutualism with a fungus (Leucocoprinus gongylophorus), in which they gather leaves to provide nutrients to the fungus, and they feed on it. It is an obligate mutualism. Photo taken from Ants kalytta.


They are those that occur between individuals of the same species. They are most beneficial or collaborative:

  • Familiars: grouped individuals have some sort of relationship. Some examples of species we have discussed in the blog are elephants, some primates, many birds, cetaceans In such relationships there are different types of families.
  • Gregariousness: groups are usually of many unrelated individuals over a permanent period or seasonal time. The most typical examples would be the flocks of migratory birds, migration of the monarch butterfly, herds of large herbivores like wildebeest, shoal of fish

    El gregarismo de estas cebras, junto con su pelaje, les permite confundir a los depredadores. Foto tomada de Telegraph
    Gregariousness of these zebras, along with their fur, allow them to confuse predators. Photo taken from Telegraph
  • Colonies: groups of individuals that have been reproduced asexually and share common structures. The best known case is coral, which is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest living being (Australian Great Barrier Reef), but is actually a colony of polyps (and its calcareous skeletons), not single individual.
  • Society: they are individuals who live together in an organized and hierarchical manner, where there is a division of tasks and they are usually physically different from each other according to their function in society. Typical examples are social insects such as ants, bees, termites

Intraspecific relations of competition are:

  • Territorialityconfrontation or competition for access to the territory, light, females, food can cause direct clashes, as in the case of deer, and/or develop other strategies, such as marking odor (cats, bears), vocalization

    Tigres peleando por el territorio. Captura de vídeo de John Varty
    Tiger figthing for territory. Video caption by John Varty
  • Cannibalism: predation of one individual over another of the same species.

And you, as a human, have you ever thought how do you relate with individuals of your species and other species?



Communication among plants: allelopathy

As always have been said, plants are unable to speak. But, even if they don’t speak, this does not mean they do not communicate with each other. Relatively few years ago, during the period from 1930 to 1940, it was discovered that plants also transmit certain stimuli to others. But, what kind of communication exist among them? What are their words and how are pronounced? And what involves this interaction?


In 1937, Molisch introduced the term allelopathy referring to the two Latin words “Allelon” and “Pathos”, which mean “another” and “suffering”, respectively. But, the actual meaning of the word was determined by Rice in 1984. Allelopathy now means any effect that a plant transmits to another directly or indirectly through production of different metabolism compounds, causing either a positive or negative effect on the other organism. These compounds are called allelochemicals.

The allelochemicals are released on the environment by plants. But, they are not directly aimed to the action site, thus it is a passive mechanism. To be effective, allelopathic interaction needs that these substances are distributed along the ground or the air and that they reach the other plant. Once inside the recipient plant, this one may have defense and degradation mechanisms of the compounds while avoiding the effect, or conversely, it will suffer a pathological effect.

Allelopathy (Adapted image of OpenClips)


The release of allelochemicals can be 4 main ways:

  • Leaching: the aerial part of the plant lets go substances by rain effect. Then, they can fall on other plants or on the ground. Therefore, it can be direct or indirect effect, depending on whether they falls on another plant or not. Although, in principle, it is considered indirect.
  • Decomposition: the plants drop their leftovers on the ground, where they decomposed under the microorganisms action, which help the release of the compounds. The plant leftovers range from leaves to branches or roots. The substances found there may be inactive until coming into contact with moisture or microorganisms, or can be active and then be inactivated by the microorganisms activity or by being retained on the ground. So, it is an indirect way. The decomposition is very important because the most of allelochemicals are released this way.
  • Volatilization: the substances are released by the stomata (structures that allow the exchange of gas and transpiration). These are volatile and water-soluble, thus can be absorbed by other plant’s stomata or be dissolved in water. Commonly, plants using these pathways occur in temperate and warm climates. It is considered a direct route.
  • Exudation: the plants can also release allelochemicals directly by live roots. The exudation system depends especially of roots state, of the kind of roots and of their growing level (if they are growing or not).
The 4 main pathways of allelochemical releasing: volatilization (V), leaching (L), descomposition (D) and root exudation (E). (Adapted image of OpenClips)


Factors influencing the release of allelochemicals are normally abiotic, such as high radiation, low humidity, unsuitable pH, ultraviolet light, temperature, nutrient deficiency, pollution or contamination (including pesticides ). The higher is the stress caused by this factors to the plant, highest is the allelochemicals amount released from secondary metabolic routes.

  • This is important for research and pharmacy: for generating relevant oils many plants are grown under stressful conditions, as it is thanks to the production of these secondary metabolites that they can survive.

Furthermore, biotic factors also take part, such as insects, herbivores or competition with other plant species. These activate the plant defenses and then the organism is stimulated to secrete bitter substances, or substances that harden the tissues, that are toxic or give off unpleasant odors, etc.

Finally, each plant has its own genome and this makes synthesize those or other substances. But, they are also determined by the phenology (life stages) and the development (if the size of the plant is bigger, it can release more allelochemicals).


The allelochemicals are very diverse and, therefore, it’s difficult to establish a general action model; since it depends on the compound type, the receiving plants and how it acts.

When we talk about how the allelochemicals can act at internal level, there is a large number of physiological parameters that can be affected. They have action on the cellular membrane, disrupt the activity of different enzymes or structural proteins or alter hormonal balance. They can also inhibit or reduce cellular respiration and chlorophyll synthesis, leading to a reduction in vitality, growth and overall development of the plant. Furthermore, these substances can also reduce seed germination or seedling development, or affect cell division, pollen germination, etc.

On the other hand, at external level, the allelochemicals may be related to the release or limitation of nutrients that are found in the soil. Others act on microorganisms, leading to a perturbation on the symbiotic relationships they establish. In addition, these substances have great importance into the generations succession, as they determine certain competition tendencies and also act on the habitat ecology. Even so, it is a successive competition, as they do not directly compete to obtain the main resources.


One of the best known allelochemicals is the juglone, produced by the Eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra). Juglone, once released to soil, can inhibit the other plants growth around the tree. This allows the issuing organism to get more resources, avoiding competition.

black walnut
Eastern black walnut  (Juglans nigra) (Photo taken by Hans Braxmeier)

A very curious case is that of the acacias (Acacia). These plants synthesize a toxic alkaloid that migrates to the leaves when the body is attacked by a herbivore. This substance’s toxicity is high, because it damages with the contact and ingestion, becoming deadly even for large herbivores.In addition, this alkaloid is volatile and transferred by air to other nearby acacias, acting as an alarm. When the other acacias receive this signal, this component is segregated to leaves, making them darker. Even so, the effect is temporary. This makes animals like giraffes have to constantly move to eat a few leaves of each acacia, and always against the wind, to avoid toxicity.

Acacias (Acacia) (Photo taken by Sarangib)



  • A. Aguilella & F. Puche. 2004. Diccionari de botànica. Col·leció Educació. Material. Universitat de València: pp. 500.
  • A. Macías, D. Marín, A. Oliveros-Bastidas, R.M. Varela, A.M. Simonet, C. Carrera & J.M.G. Molinillo. 2003. Alelopathy as a new strategy for sustainable ecosystems development. Biological Sciences in Space 17 (1).
  • J. Ferguson, B. Rathinasabapathi & C. A. Chase. 2013. Allelopathy: How plants suppresss other plants. University of Florida, IFAS Extension HS944
  • Notes of Phanerogamae, Applied Plant Physiology and Analisi of vegetation, Degree of Environmental Biology, UAB