Habitat choice meets thermal specialization: Competition with specialists may drive suboptimal habitat preferences in generalists

Abstract : Limited dispersal is classically considered as a prerequisite for ecological specialization to evolve, such that generalists are expected to show greater dispersal propensity compared with specialists. However, when individuals choose habitats that maximize their performance instead of dispersing randomly, theory predicts dispersal with habitat choice to evolve in specialists, while generalists should disperse more randomly. We tested whether habitat choice is associated with thermal niche specialization using microcosms of the ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila, a species that performs active dispersal. We found that thermal specialists preferred optimal habitats as predicted by theory, a link that should make specialists more likely to track suitable conditions under environmental changes than expected under the random dispersal assumption. Surprisingly, gen-eralists also performed habitat choice but with a preference for sub-optimal habitats. Since this result challenges current theory, we developed a metapopulation model to understand under which circumstances such a preference for suboptimal habitats should evolve. We showed that competition between generalists and specialists may favor a preference for niche margins in generalists under environmental variability. Our results demonstrate that the behavioral dimension of dispersal-here, habitat choice-fundamentally alters our predictions of how dispersal evolve with niche specialization, making dispersal behaviors crucial for ecological forecasting facing environmental changes.
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Staffan Jacob, Estelle Laurent, Bart Haegeman, Romain Bertrand, Jérome Prunier, et al.. Habitat choice meets thermal specialization: Competition with specialists may drive suboptimal habitat preferences in generalists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , National Academy of Sciences, 2018, 115 (47), pp.11988-11993. ⟨10.1073/pnas.1805574115⟩. ⟨hal-02350546⟩

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