Predicting coexistence in experimental ecological communities


The study of experimental communities is fundamental to the development of ecology. Yet, for most ecological systems, the number of experiments required to build, model or analyse the community vastly exceeds what is feasible using current methods. Here, we address this challenge by presenting a statistical approach that uses the results of a limited number of experiments to predict the outcomes (coexistence and species abundances) of all possible assemblages that can be formed from a given pool of species. Using three well-studied experimental systems—encompassing plants, protists, and algae with grazers—we show that this method predicts the results of unobserved experiments with high accuracy, while making no assumptions about the dynamics of the systems. These results demonstrate a fundamentally different way of building and quantifying experimental systems, requiring far fewer experiments than traditional study designs. By developing a scalable method for navigating large systems, this work provides an efficient approach to studying highly diverse experimental communities.

Nature Ecology & Evolution