Coexistence in diverse communities with higher-order interactions

Theo Gibbs, Simon A. Levin, Jonathan M. Levine

A central assumption in most ecological models is that the interactions in a community operate only between pairs of species. However, the interaction between two species may be fundamentally changed by the presence of others. Although interactions among three or more species, called higher-order interactions, have the potential to modify our theoretical understanding of coexistence, ecologists lack clear expectations for how these interactions shape community structure. Here, we analytically predict and numerically confirm how the variability and strength of higher-order interactions affect species coexistence. We found that, as higher-order interaction strengths become more variable across species, fewer species coexist, echoing the behavior of pairwise models. If inter-specific higher-order interactions become too harmful relative to self-regulation, coexistence was destabilized, but coexistence was also lost when these interactions were too weak and mutualistic effects became prevalent. Last, we showed that more species rich communities structured by higher-order interactions lose species more readily than their species poor counterparts, generalizing classic results for community stability. Our work provides needed theoretical expectation for how higher-order interactions impact species coexistence in diverse communities.

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