Steibl, S; Laforsch, C: Shell resource partitioning as a mechanism of coexistence in two co-occurring terrestrial hermit crab species, BMC Ecology, 20(1) (2020), doi: [Link]
Coexistence is enabled by ecological differentiation of the co-occurring species. One possible mechanism thereby is resource partitioning, where each species utilizes a distinct subset of the most limited resource. This resource partitioning is difficult to investigate using empirical research in nature, as only few species are primarily limited by solely one resource, rather than a combination of multiple factors. One exception are the shell-dwelling hermit crabs, which are known to be limited under natural conditions and in suitable habitats primarily by the availability of gastropod shells. In the present study, we used two co-occurring terrestrial hermit crab species, Coenobita rugosus and C. perlatus, to investigate how resource partitioning is realized in nature and whether it could be a driver of coexistence. Field sampling of eleven separated hermit crab populations showed that the two co-occurring hermit crab species inhabit the same beach habitat but utilize a distinct subset of the shell resource. Preference experiments and principal component analysis of the shell morphometric data thereby revealed that the observed utilization patterns arise out of different intrinsic preferences towards two distinct shell shapes. While C. rugosus displayed a preference towards a short and globose shell morphology, C. perlatus showed preferences towards an elongated shell morphology with narrow aperture. The two terrestrial hermit crab species occur in the same habitat but have evolved different preferences towards distinct subsets of the limiting shell resource. Resource partitioning might therefore be the main driver of their ecological differentiation, which ultimately allowed these co-occurring species to coexist in their environment. As the preferred shell morphology of C. rugosus maximizes reproductive output at the expense of protection, while the preferred shell morphology of C. perlatus maximizes protection against predation at the expense of reproductive output, shell resource partitioning might reflect different strategies to respond to the same set of selective pressures occurring in beach habitats. This work offers empirical support for the competitive exclusion principle-hypothesis and demonstrates that hermit crabs are an ideal model organism to investigate resource partitioning in natural populations.
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