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Recent studies have highlighted the importance of higher-order competitive interactions in stabilizing population dynamics in multi-species communities. But how does the structure of competitive hierarchies affect population dynamics and extinction processes? We tackled this important question by using spatially explicit simulations of ecological drift (10 species in a homogeneous landscape of 64 patches) in which birth rates were influenced by interspecific competition. Specifically, we examined how transitive (linear pecking orders) and intransitive (pecking orders with loops) competitive hierarchies affected extinction rates and population dynamics in simulated communities through time. In comparison to a pure neutral model, an ecological drift model including transitive competition increased extinction rates, caused synchronous density-dependent population fluctuations, and generated a white-noise distribution of population sizes. In contrast, the drift model with intransitive competitive interactions decreased extinctions rates, caused asynchronous (compensatory) density-dependent population fluctuations, and generated a brown noise distribution of population sizes. We also explored the effect on community stability of more complex patterns of competitive interactions in which pairwise competitive relationships were assigned probabilistically. These probabilistic competition models also generated density-dependent trajectories and a brown noise distribution of population sizes. However, extinction rates and the degree of population synchrony were comparable to those observed in purely neutral communities. Collectively, our results confirm that intransitive competition has a strong and stabilizing effect on local populations in species-poor communities. This effect wanes with increasing species richness. Empirical assemblages characterized by brown spectral noise, density-dependent regulation, and asynchronous (compensatory) population fluctuations may indicate a signature of intransitive competitive interactions.

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© 2019 by the Ecological Society of America.



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