The competitive exclusion principle in stochastic environments. Academic Article uri icon


  • In its simplest form, the competitive exclusion principle states that a number of species competing for a smaller number of resources cannot coexist. However, it has been observed empirically that in some settings it is possible to have coexistence. One example is Hutchinson's 'paradox of the plankton'. This is an instance where a large number of phytoplankton species coexist while competing for a very limited number of resources. Both experimental and theoretical studies have shown that temporal fluctuations of the environment can facilitate coexistence for competing species. Hutchinson conjectured that one can get coexistence because nonequilibrium conditions would make it possible for different species to be favored by the environment at different times. In this paper we show in various settings how a variable (stochastic) environment enables a set of competing species limited by a smaller number of resources or other density dependent factors to coexist. If the environmental fluctuations are modeled by white noise, and the per-capita growth rates of the competitors depend linearly on the resources, we prove that there is competitive exclusion. However, if either the dependence between the growth rates and the resources is not linear or the white noise term is nonlinear we show that coexistence on fewer resources than species is possible. Even more surprisingly, if the temporal environmental variation comes from switching the environment at random times between a finite number of possible states, it is possible for all species to coexist even if the growth rates depend linearly on the resources. We show in an example (a variant of which first appeared in Benaim and Lobry '16) that, contrary to Hutchinson's explanation, one can switch between two environments in which the same species is favored and still get coexistence.

published proceedings

  • J Math Biol

altmetric score

  • 3

author list (cited authors)

  • Hening, A., & Nguyen, D. H.

citation count

  • 42

complete list of authors

  • Hening, Alexandru||Nguyen, Dang H

publication date

  • April 2020