Interspecific competition involves individuals of two or more species vying for the same limited resource. However, features of the environment other than resources also directly influence the growth and reproduction of species (see Chapters 6 and 7) and therefore can influence the outcome of competitive interactions. For example, environmental factors such as temperature, soil or water pH, relative humidity, and salinity directly influence physiological processes related to growth and reproduction, but they are not consumable resources that species compete over.
For example, in a series of field and laboratory experiments, Yoshinori Taniguchi and colleagues at the University of Wyoming examined the influence of water temperature on the relative competitive ability of three fish species that show longitudinal replacement in Rocky Mountain streams. Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are most abundant at high elevations, brown trout (Salmo trutta) at middle elevations, and creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) at lower elevations. Previous studies have shown that interference competition for foraging sites is an important factor influencing the relative success of individuals at sites where the species co-occur. Based on the distribution of these three species along elevation gradients in the Rocky Mountain streams and differences in physiological performance with respect to temperature, the researchers hypothesized that the brook trout would be competitively superior at cold water temperatures, brown trout at moderate water temperatures, and creek chub would be competitively superior at warmer water temperatures. To test this hypothesis, Taniguchi and his colleagues used experimental streams to examine competitive interactions at seven different water temperatures: 3, 6, 10, 22, 22, 24, and 26°C.
Prior to each test, fish were thermally acclimated by increasing or decreasing the temperature by 1°C per day until the test temperature was reached (see Section 7.9 for discussion of thermal acclimation). For each test, individuals of each species were matched for size (<10%) and placed in the experimental stream together. Aggressive interactions and food intake were monitored. Competitive superiority was based on which species consumed the most food items because food intake is considered a limiting factor for these drift-feeding, stream fishes.
Patterns of food consumption clearly show changes in the relative competitive abilities of the three fish species across the gradient of water temperatures (Figure 13.5). At 3°C, brook trout exhibited the highest rate of food consumption, although differences between the two trout species were minimal below 20°C, and both trout species consumed significantly more food than creek chub. However, as temperature increased, food consumption by creek chub increased. At 24°C, food intake by brook trout dropped to zero, whereas intake rate of brown trout still exceeded that of creek chub. At 26°C, the rate of food intake reversed for the two species and food intake by creek chub exceeded that of brown trout. In an additional series of experiments, the researchers were able to establish that the observed patterns of food intake during the competition trials were a result of differences in competitive ability and no changes in appetite because of water temperature.
The transition in competitive ability from 24 to 26°C in the laboratory experiments are in agreement with the transition in dominance from trout species to creek chub at a similar temperature range in the field. The results of Taniguchi and his colleagues provide a clear example of temperature mediation of competitive interactions. The relative competitive abilities of the three fish species for limiting food resources are directly influenced by abiotic conditions, that is, water temperature.
A similar case of competitive ability being influenced by nonresource factors is illustrated in the work of Susan Warner of Pennsylvania State University. Warner and her colleagues examined the effect of water pH (acidity) on interspecific competition between two species of tadpoles (Hyla gratiosa and Hyla femoralis). The two species overlap broadly in their geographic distribution, yet differ in their responses to water acidity. The researchers conducted experiments using two levels of water pH (4.5 and 6.0) and varying levels of population densities to examine the interactions of pH and population density on both intra- and interspecific competition. The results of the experiments indicated that interspecific interactions were minimal at low water pH (4.5); however, at higher water pH (6.0), interspecific competition from H. fermoralis caused decreased survival and an increased larval period for H. gratiosa. The latter resulted in decreased size at metamorphosis for H. gratiosa individuals.