High quality habitat and facilitation ameliorate competitive effects of prior residents on new settlers.
Many species disperse during their lifetime. Two factors that can affect the performance of individuals following dispersal are the presence of conspecifics and intrinsic habitat quality at the settlement site. Detecting the influence of these factors can be difficult for at least two reasons: (1) the outcomes of interactions with conspecifics are often variable including both competition and facilitation, and (2) selection of high quality habitats often leads to positive covariance between habitat quality and density. In this study, I investigate positive and negative effects of resident blue streak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) on the growth and survival of recently settled conspecifics while accounting for habitat quality. Juvenile L. dimidiatus settle near adult conspecifics, but likely have to compete with resident adults for access to food. However, field experiments indicate that settlers have access to more resources at occupied sites, and as a result, grow faster despite evidence for competition with residents. This result is a direct consequence of two factors: (1) resident conspecifics facilitate settlers by attracting client fish, and (2) resident conspecifics are strongly associated with high quality habitat. These results highlight the need to simultaneously consider habitat quality and competitive and facilitative interactions between conspecifics when making inferences about ecological processes from spatial patterns of individual performance.