Coping with multiple enemies: pairwise interactions do not predict evolutionary change in complex multitrophic communities

Deirdre McClean, Ville-Petri Friman, Alain Finn, Ian Donohue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Predicting the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of populations in multispecies communities is one of the fundamental challenges in ecology. Many of these predictions are made by scaling patterns observed from pairwise interactions. Here, we show that the coupling of ecological and evolutionary outcomes is likely to be weaker in increasingly complex communities due to greater chance of life-history trait correlations. Using model microbial communities comprising a focal bacterial species (Bacillus subtilis), a bacterial competitor, protist predator and phage parasite, we found that increasing the number of enemies in a community had an overall negative effect on B. subtilis population growth. However, only the competitor imposed direct selection for B. subtilis trait evolution in pairwise cultures and this effect was weakened in the presence of other antagonists that had a negative effect on the competitor. In contrast, adaptation to parasites was driven indirectly by correlated selection where competitors had a positive and predators a negative effect. For all measured traits, selection in pairwise communities was a poor predictor of B. subtilis evolution in more complex communities. Together, our results suggest that coupling of ecological and evolutionary outcomes is interaction-specific and weakly coupled in more complex communities. We conclude that understanding 2 the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms underpinning trait correlations is crucial to predict species response to global change in complex microbial communities
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
Early online date15 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 The Authors.


  • bacteria
  • community ecology
  • community interactions
  • competition
  • eco-evolutionary processes
  • evolution
  • microcosms
  • parasitism
  • predation

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