Aims According to conventional theory, larger plant species are likely to inflict more intense competition on other (smaller) species. We tested a deducible prediction from this: that a larger species should generally be expected to impose greater limits on the number of species that can coexist with it.
Methods Species richness was sampled under plant canopies for a selection of woody species ('host' species) that display a wide range of adult sizes (from small shrubs to large trees), growing within natural vegetation of the Interior Douglas-fir zone of southern British Columbia, Canada. These data were compared with species richness levels sampled within randomly placed plots within the host species habitat.
Important findings A prominent host species size effect on species richness was detected but only narrowly at the small end of the species size range. Across most (90%) of the increasing size range of host species, the number of species residing under the host canopy showed no significant decrease relative to the number expected by random assembly, based on species richness within randomly defined equivalent areas within the habitat of the host species. This apparent 'null effect', we suggest, is explained not because these larger species have no effect on community assembly. We postulate that larger species are indeed likely to be more effective in causing competitive exclusion of some smaller species (as expected from conventional theory), but that any potential limitation effect of this on resident species richness is offset for two reasons: (i) larger species also generate niche spaces that they cannot exploit under their own canopies and so have minimal impact (as competitors) on smaller species that can occupy these niches and (ii) certain other small species—despite small size—have effective competitive abilities under the severe competition that occurs within host neighbourhoods of larger species. These and other recent studies call for re-evaluation of traditional views on the role of plant size in affecting competitive ability and community assembly.