Superorganisms or loose collections of species? A unifying theory of community patterns along environmental gradients

Kevin Liautaud*, Egbert H. van Nes, Matthieu Barbier, Marten Scheffer, Michel Loreau

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterAcademicpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


The question whether communities should be viewed as superorganisms or loose collections of individual species has been the subject of a long-standing debate in ecology. Each view implies different spatiotemporal community patterns. Along spatial environmental gradients, the organismic view predicts that species turnover is discontinuous, with sharp boundaries between communities, while the individualistic view predicts gradual changes in species composition. Using a spatially explicit multispecies competition model, we show that organismic and individualistic forms of community organisation are two limiting cases along a continuum of outcomes. A high variance of competition strength leads to the emergence of organism-like communities due to the presence of alternative stable states, while weak and uniform interactions induce gradual changes in species composition. Dispersal can play a confounding role in these patterns. Our work highlights the critical importance of considering species interactions to understand and predict the responses of species and communities to environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1243-1252
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019


  • Alternative stable states
  • community organisation
  • competition theory
  • critical transitions
  • environmental gradient
  • Lotka–Volterra model

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