Robert MacArthur's niche theory makes explicit predictions on how community function should change over time in a competitive community. A key prediction is that succession progressively minimizes the energy wasted by a community, but this minimization is a trade-off between energy losses from unutilised resources and costs of maintenance. By predicting how competition determines community efficiency over time MacArthur's theory may inform on the impacts of disturbance on community function and invasion risk. We provide a rare test of this theory using phytoplankton communities, and find that older communities wasted less energy than younger ones but that the reduction in energy wastage was not monotonic over time. While community structure followed consistent and clear trajectories, community function was more idiosyncratic among adjoining successional stages and driven by total community biomass rather than species composition. Our results suggest that subtle shifts in successional sequence can alter community efficiency and these effects determine community function independently of individual species membership. We conclude that, at least in phytoplankton communities, general trends in community function are predictable over time accordingly to MacArthur's theory. Tests of MacArthur's minimization principle across very different systems should be a priority given the potential of this theory to inform on the functional properties of communities.
- geometric biology
- species interactions