Evolutionary history and the strength of species interactions: Testing the phylogenetic limiting similarity hypothesis

Keith J. Fritschie, Bradley J. Cardinale, Markos A. Alexandrou, Todd H. Oakley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


A longstanding concept in community ecology is that closely related species compete more strongly than distant relatives. Ecologists have invoked this ''limiting similarity hypothesis'' to explain patterns in the structure and function of biological communities and to inform conservation, restoration, and invasive-species management. However, few studies have empirically tested the validity of the limiting similarity hypothesis. Here we report the results of a laboratory microcosm experiment in which we used a model system of 23 common, co-occurring North American freshwater green algae to quantify the strength of 216 pairwise species' interactions (the difference in population density when grown alone vs. in the presence of another species) along a manipulated gradient of evolutionary relatedness (phylogenetic distance, as the sum of branch lengths separating species on a molecular phylogeny). Interspecific interactions varied widely in these bicultures of phytoplankton, ranging from strong competition (ratio of relative yield in polyculture vs. monoculture < 1) to moderate facilitation (relative yield .1). Yet, we found no evidence that the strength of species' interactions was influenced by their evolutionary relatedness. There was no relationship between phylogenetic distance and the average, minimum (inferior competitor), nor maximum (superior competitor) interaction strength across all biculture communities (respectively, P = 0.19, P = 0.17, P = 0.14; N = 428). When we examined each individual species, only 17% of individual species' interactions strengths varied as a function of phylogenetic distance, and none of these relationships remained significant after Bonferoni correction for multiple tests (N = 23). Last, when we grouped interactions into five qualitatively different types, the frequency of these types was not related to phylogenetic distance among species pairs (F4, 422= 1.63, P = 0.15). Our empirical study adds to several others that suggest the biological underpinnings of competition may not be evolutionarily conserved, and thus, ecologists may need to re-evaluate the previously assumed generality of the limiting similarity hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1407-1417
Number of pages11
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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