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Trees in this Bangladesh forest are in competition for light.

Competition can be defined as an interaction between organisms or species, in which the fitness of one is lowered by the presence of another. Limited supply of at least one resource (such as food, water, and territory) used by both is required.[1] Competition both within and between species is an important topic ecology, especially in community ecology. Competition is one of many interacting biotic and abiotic factors that affect community structure. Competition among members of the same species is known as intraspecific competition, while competition between individuals of different species is known as interspecific competition. Competition is not always a straightforward, direct interaction either, and can occur in both a direct and indirect fashion.

According to the competitive exclusion principle, species less suited to compete for resources should either adapt or die out. According to evolutionary theory, this competition within and between species for resources plays a critical role in natural selection.

Types of competition

By mechanism

The following terms describe mechanisms by which competition occurs, which can generally be divided into direct and indirect. These mechanisms apply equally to interspecific and interspecific competition.

Male-male competition in red deer during rut is an example of interference competition within a species.

  • Interference competition - occurs directly between individuals via aggression etc. when the individuals interfere with foraging, survival, reproduction of others, or by directly preventing their physical establishment in a portion of the habitat.
  • Exploitation competition - occurs indirectly through a common limiting resource which acts as an intermediate. For example the use of the resource(s) depletes the amount available to others, or they compete for space.
  • Apparent competition - occurs indirectly between two species which are both preyed upon by the same predator. For example, species A and species B are both preys for predator C. The increase of species A will cause the decrease of species B because the increase of A's would increase the number of predator C's which in turn will hunt more of species B.

Interspecific and intraspecific

Intraspecific competition

Main article: Intraspecific competition

Intraspecific competition occurs when members of the same species vie for the same resources in an ecosystem (e.g. food or nutrients, light or space). For example, two trees growing close together will compete for light above ground, and water and nutrients in the soil. Therefore, getting less resources, they will usually perform less well than if they grew by themselves. Adaptations to such an environment include growing taller (especially in forests), or developing a larger root system.

Interspecific competition

Main article: Interspecific competition

Interspecific competition may occur when individuals of two separate species share a limiting resource in the same area. If the resource cannot support both populations, then lowered fecundity, growth, or survival may result in at least one species. Interspecific competition has the potential to alter populations, communities and the evolution of interacting species. An example among animals could be the case of cheetahs and lions; since both species feed on similar prey, they are negatively impacted by the presence of the other because they will have less food. In fact, lions sometimes steal prey items killed by cheetahs.

Evolutionary strategies

Main article: r/K selection theory

In evolutionary contexts, competition is related to the concept of r/K selection theory, which relates to the selection of traits which promote success in particular environments. The theory originates from work on island biogeography by the ecologists Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson[2].

In r/K selection theory, selective pressures are hypothesised to drive evolution in one of two stereotyped directions: r- or K-selection[3]. These terms, r and K, are derived from standard ecological algebra, as illustrated in the simple Verhulst equation of population dynamics[4]:

where r is the growth rate of the population (N), and K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting. Typically, r-selected species exploit empty niches, and produce many offspring, each of whom has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood. In contrast, K-selected species are strong competitors in crowded niches, and invest more heavily in much fewer offspring, each of whom has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood.

Behavioural consequences

See also

  • Character displacement
  • Minimum viable population
  • Resource partitioning


  1. Begon, M.; Harper, J. L.; Townsend, C. R. (1996) Ecology Blackwell Science.
  2. MacArthur, R. and Wilson, E. O. (1967). The Theory of Island Biogeography, Princeton University Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 0-691-08836-5M.
  3. Pianka, E. R. (1970). On r and K selection. American Naturalist 104, 592-597.
  4. Verhulst, P. F. (1838). Notice sur la loi que la population pursuit dans son accroissement. Corresp. Math. Phys. 10, 113-121.

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