Competition as a demolition derby: why tolerating competitors is more important than suppressing them

Daniel Z. Atwater, Ragan M. Callaway, Sa Xiao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Tolerance and suppression are distinct components of competition among plants, and recognizing how they affect competitive outcomes is important for understanding the mechanisms and consequences of competition. We used simulations informed by experimental trials to ask whether tolerance or suppression of competitors was more important for the survival of native plants experiencing competition with an exotic invasive species. When competition was pairwise, tolerance and suppression contributed equally to competitive rank in simulations. However, when multiple native genotypes competed together against an invader, the ability to tolerate competition was up to 50 times more important than the ability to suppress the invader. In two-competitor communities the chief advantage of suppressing competitors was a global decrease in their abundance, but this advantage did not exist in communities of multiple competitors – which is more representative of natural conditions – because decreased competitor abundance benefited all plants regardless of their competitive ability. We suggest that this concept is analogous to a ‘demolition derby,' an automotive contest where participants attempt to have the last functional vehicle on the playing field. Because strong suppressors share the benefits of eliminating competitors with other remaining competitors, we propose that tolerance of competitors is more beneficial than suppression when competition occurs in a multiplayer scenario – in a demolition derby and in nature. This finding has implications for our understanding of how competition influences plant species coexistence, plant community structure and invasion outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-155
Number of pages13
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • competitive effect
  • competitive hierarchy
  • competitive response
  • invasion
  • pairwise competition


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