CZAAWE Resource Article

The ecology of individuals-incidence and implications for individual specialization
Publication Type 
Journal Article
Year of publication 
2003
Publication/Journal 
The American Naturalist
Abstract 
Most empirical and theoretical studies of resource use and population dynamics treat conspecific individuals as ecologically equivalent. This simplification is only justified if interindividual niche variation is rare, weak, or has a trivial effect on ecological processes. This article reviews the incidence, degree, causes, and implications of individual-level niche variation to challenge these simplifications. Evidence for individual specialization is available for 93 species distributed across a broad range of taxonomic groups. Although few studies have quantified the degree to which individuals are specialized relative to their population, between-individual variation can sometimes comprise the majority of the population's niche width. The degree of individual specialization varies widely among species and among populations, reflecting a diverse array of physiological, behavioral, and ecological mechanisms that can generate intrapopulation variation. Finally, individual specialization has potentially important ecological, evolutionary, and conservation implications. Theory suggests that niche variation facilitates frequency-dependent interactions that can profoundly affect the population's stability, the amount of intraspecific competition, fitness-function shapes, and the population's capacity to diversify and speciate rapidly. Our collection of case studies suggests that individual specialization is a widespread but underappreciated phenomenon that poses many important but unanswered questions.