Net effects of life-history traits explain persistent differences in abundance among similar species

Mike McWilliam*, Maria Dornelas, Mariana Álvarez-Noriega, Andrew H. Baird, Sean R. Connolly, Joshua S. Madin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
8 Downloads (Pure)


Life-history traits are promising tools to predict species commonness and rarity because they influence a population's fitness in a given environment. Yet, species with similar traits can have vastly different abundances, challenging the prospect of robust trait-based predictions. Using long-term demographic monitoring, we show that coral populations with similar morphological and life-history traits show persistent (decade-long) differences in abundance. Morphological groups predicted species positions along two, well-known life-history axes (the fast-slow continuum and size-specific fecundity). However, integral projection models revealed that density-independent population growth (λ) was more variable within morphological groups, and was consistently higher in dominant species relative to rare species. Within-group λ differences projected large abundance differences among similar species in short timeframes, and were generated by small but compounding variation in growth, survival, and reproduction. Our study shows that easily-measured morphological traits predict demographic strategies, yet small life-history differences can accumulate into large differences in λ and abundance among similar species. Quantifying the net effects of multiple traits on population dynamics is therefore essential to anticipate species commonness and rarity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3863
Number of pages13
Issue number1
Early online date1 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023


  • Commonness
  • Rarity
  • Fitness
  • Comparative demography, trade-offs, reproduction
  • Recruitment
  • Functional traits
  • Coral reefs
  • Trade-offs


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