The theory of limiting similarity predicts that co-occurring species must be sufficiently different to coexist. Although this idea is a staple of community ecology, convincing empirical evidence has been scarce. Here we examine 34 subterranean beetle communities in arid inland Australia that share the same habitat type but have evolved in complete isolation over the past 5 million years. Although these communities come from a range of phylogenetic origins, we find that they have almost invariably evolved to share a similar size structure. The relative positions of coexisting species on the body size axis were significantly more regular across communities than would be expected by chance, with a size ratio, on average, of 1.6 between coexisting species. By contrast, species' absolute body sizes varied substantially from one community to the next. This suggests that self-organized spacing according to limiting-similarity theory, as opposed to evolution toward preexisting fixed niches, shaped the communities. Using a model starting from random sets of founder species, we demonstrate that the patterns are indeed consistent with evolutionary self-organization. For less isolated habitats, the same model predicts the coexistence of multiple species in each regularly spaced functional group. Limiting similarity, therefore, may also be compatible with the coexistence of many redundant species.
- Limiting similarity