How context dependent are species interactions?

Scott A. Chamberlain, Judith L. Bronstein, Jennifer A. Rudgers

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

434 Scopus citations


The net effects of interspecific species interactions on individuals and populations vary in both sign (-, 0, +) and magnitude (strong to weak). Interaction outcomes are context-dependent when the sign and/or magnitude change as a function of the biotic or abiotic context. While context dependency appears to be common, its distribution in nature is poorly described. Here, we used meta-analysis to quantify variation in species interaction outcomes (competition, mutualism, or predation) for 247 published articles. Contrary to our expectations, variation in the magnitude of effect sizes did not differ among species interactions, and while mutualism was most likely to change sign across contexts (and predation least likely), mutualism did not strongly differ from competition. Both the magnitude and sign of species interactions varied the most along spatial and abiotic gradients, and least as a function of the presence/absence of a third species. However, the degree of context dependency across these context types was not consistent among mutualism, competition and predation studies. Surprisingly, study location and ecosystem type varied in the degree of context dependency, with laboratory studies showing the highest variation in outcomes. We urge that studying context dependency per se, rather than focusing only on mean outcomes, can provide a general method for describing patterns of variation in nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)881-890
Number of pages10
JournalEcology letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Coefficient of variation
  • Community context
  • Conditionality
  • Distributed outcomes
  • Interaction strength
  • Meta-analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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