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Coexistence of Specialist and Generalist Species Is Shaped by Dispersal and Environmental Factors

Disentangling the mechanisms mediating the coexistence of habitat specialists and generalists has been a long-standing subject of investigation. However, the roles of species traits and environmental and spatial factors have not been assessed in a unifying theoretical framework. Theory suggests that specialist species are more competitive in natural communities. However, empirical work has shown that specialist species are declining worldwide due to habitat loss and fragmentation. We addressed the question of the coexistence of specialist and generalist species with a spatially explicit metacommunity model in continuous and heterogeneous environments. We characterized how species’ dispersal abilities, the number of interacting species, environmental spatial autocorrelation, and disturbance impact community composition. Our results demonstrated that species’ dispersal ability and the number of interacting species had a drastic influence on the composition of metacommunities. More specialized species coexisted when species had large dispersal abilities and when the number of interacting species was high. Disturbance selected against highly specialized species, whereas environmental spatial autocorrelation had a marginal impact. Interestingly, species richness and niche breadth were mainly positively correlated at the community scale but were negatively correlated at the metacommunity scale. Numerous diversely specialized species can thus coexist, but both species’ intrinsic traits and environmental factors interact to shape the specialization signatures of communities at both the local and global scales.