Can biotic interactions cause allopatry? niche models, competition, and distributions of South American mouse opossums

26 February 2014

Gutierrez, Eliecer; Boria, Robert; Anderson, Robert P.

Based on our own empirical data and a literature review, we explore the possibility that biotic interactions, specifically competition, might be responsible for creating, and/or maintaining, geographic isolation. Ecological niche modeling was first used to test whether the distributions of 2 species of Neotropical marsupials (Marmosa robinsoni and M. xerophila) fit the predicted geographic pattern of competitive exclusion: one species predominates in areas environmentally suitable for both species along real contact zones. Secondly, we examined the connectivity among populations of each species, interpreted in the light of the niche models. The results show predominance of M. xerophila along its contact zone with M. robinsoni in the Península de Paraguaná in northwestern Venezuela. There, M. robinsoni has an extremely restricted distribution despite climatic conditions suitable for both species across the peninsula and its isthmus. The latter two results suggest that M. xerophila may be responsible for the geographic isolation of the peninsular populations of M. robinsoni with respect to other populations of the latter species in northwestern Venezuela. These results may represent an example of allopatry caused, or at least maintained, by competition. Our results and a review of numerous studies in which biotic interactions restrict species distributions (including at the continental scale) support a previously overlooked phenomenon: biotic interactions can isolate populations of a species. We propose 2 general mechanisms, intrusion and contraction, to classify allopatric conditions caused by various classes of biotic interactions. We present a necessary modification of the concept of ecological vicariance to include biotic interactions as possible vicariant agents regardless of whether genetic differentiation occurs or not.