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Frontiers of Biogeography

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Climatic niche overlap models reveal niche partitioning among black widow spiders and potential ecological impacts of invasive brown widows in North America


The introduction of new species can have unpredictable effects on native communities. Understanding the potential for competitive interactions between widow spiders (Theridiidae: Latrodectus), and how they may have shaped species’ geographic distributions, is critical for predicting the impacts of biological invasions in this historically cryptic group. North America is home to three native widows (L. hesperus, L. mactans, L. variolus) and one invasive widow (L. geometricus) with distributions that are at least partly sympatric. Given the relative novelty of L. geometricus in native communities as they expand their range, it is unclear if and how they share resources with their congeners, and competition for climatic resources (space) could result in ecological impacts to native widows. Here we aim to model niche differentiation and niche dynamics between native widows, that have coevolved over time, and between native and brown widows to assess the potential for ecological impact. We investigated the potential for climatic niche partitioning to shape sympatric geographic distributions of native widows compared to each other and to L. geometricus. We aggregated photographed occurrences from social media communities and online repositories to quantify climatic niche overlap for all four species on a continental scale, to assess niche dynamics among native species and between invasive and nativespecies. We found that native species had distributions that were more strongly partitioned, showing weaker niche overlap, except for the two eastern widows, which showed strong overlap and niche equivalency. Conversely, we found greater niche overlap between L. geometricus and native widows, possibly because it is too soon to see the effect of competition on species’ geographic distributions, or because differences in diet or partitioning of urban versus nonurban microhabitats promote coexistence.

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