Niche and neutral models predict asymptotically equivalent species abundance distributions in high-diversity ecological communities

Ryan A. Chisholm, Stephen Wilson Pacala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

107 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

A fundamental challenge in ecology is to understand the mechanisms that govern patterns of relative species abundance. Previous numerical simulations have suggested that complex niche-structured models produce species abundance distributions (SADs) that are qualitatively similar to those of very simple neutral models that ignore differences between species. However, in the absence of an analytical treatment of niche models, one cannot tell whether the two classes of model produce the same patterns via similar or different mechanisms. We present an analytical proof that, in the limit as diversity becomes large, a strong niche model give rises to exactly the same asymptotic form of SAD as the neutral model, and we verify the analytical predictions for a Panamanian tropical forest data set. Our results strongly suggest that neutral processes drive patterns of relative species abundance in high-diversity ecological communities, even when strong niche structure exists. However, neutral theory cannot explain what generates high diversity in the first place, and it may not be valid in low-diversity communities. Our results also confirm that neutral theory cannot be used to infer an absence of niche structure or to explain ecosystem function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15821-15825
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume107
Issue number36
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 7 2010

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Biota
Ecology
Ecosystem
Datasets

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

Keywords

  • Biodiversity
  • Community ecology
  • Neutral theory
  • Niche theory
  • Relative species abundance distributions

Cite this

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abstract = "A fundamental challenge in ecology is to understand the mechanisms that govern patterns of relative species abundance. Previous numerical simulations have suggested that complex niche-structured models produce species abundance distributions (SADs) that are qualitatively similar to those of very simple neutral models that ignore differences between species. However, in the absence of an analytical treatment of niche models, one cannot tell whether the two classes of model produce the same patterns via similar or different mechanisms. We present an analytical proof that, in the limit as diversity becomes large, a strong niche model give rises to exactly the same asymptotic form of SAD as the neutral model, and we verify the analytical predictions for a Panamanian tropical forest data set. Our results strongly suggest that neutral processes drive patterns of relative species abundance in high-diversity ecological communities, even when strong niche structure exists. However, neutral theory cannot explain what generates high diversity in the first place, and it may not be valid in low-diversity communities. Our results also confirm that neutral theory cannot be used to infer an absence of niche structure or to explain ecosystem function.",
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AU - Pacala, Stephen Wilson

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N2 - A fundamental challenge in ecology is to understand the mechanisms that govern patterns of relative species abundance. Previous numerical simulations have suggested that complex niche-structured models produce species abundance distributions (SADs) that are qualitatively similar to those of very simple neutral models that ignore differences between species. However, in the absence of an analytical treatment of niche models, one cannot tell whether the two classes of model produce the same patterns via similar or different mechanisms. We present an analytical proof that, in the limit as diversity becomes large, a strong niche model give rises to exactly the same asymptotic form of SAD as the neutral model, and we verify the analytical predictions for a Panamanian tropical forest data set. Our results strongly suggest that neutral processes drive patterns of relative species abundance in high-diversity ecological communities, even when strong niche structure exists. However, neutral theory cannot explain what generates high diversity in the first place, and it may not be valid in low-diversity communities. Our results also confirm that neutral theory cannot be used to infer an absence of niche structure or to explain ecosystem function.

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