How do generalist consumers coexist over evolutionary time? An explanation with nutrition and tradeoffs
Generalist consumers commonly coexist in many ecosystems. Yet, eco-evolutionary theory poses a problem with this observation: generalist consumers (usually) cannot coexist stably. To provide a solution to this theory-observation dissonance, we analyzed a simple eco-evolutionary consumer resource model. We modeled consumption of two nutritionally-interactive resources by species which evolve their resource encounter rates subject to a tradeoff.
As shown previously, consumers can ecologically coexist through tradeoffs in resource encounter rates; however, this coexistence is evolutionary unstable. Here, we find that nutritional interactions between resources and the shape of acquisition tradeoffs produce very similar evolutionary outcomes in isolation. Specifically, they produce evolutionarily stable communities composed either of two specialists (concave acquisition tradeoff or antagonistic nutrition) or a single generalist (convex acquisition tradeoff or complementary nutrition). Thus, the generalist-coexistence problem remains. However, the combination of nonlinear resource acquisition tradeoffs with nonlinear resource nutritional relationships create selection forces that can push and pull against each other. Ultimately, this push-pull dynamic can stabilize the coexistence of two competing generalist consumers - but only when we coupled a convex acquisition tradeoff with antagonistic nutrition. Thus, our model here offers some resolution to the generalist-coexistence problem in eco-evolutionary, consumer-resource theory.