This material is published in the PLoS ONE (2009, 4(10): e7460), the only definitive repository of the content that has been certified and accepted after peer review. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007460.

Ecological equivalence: a realistic assumption for niche theory as a testable alternative to neutral theory

C. Patrick Doncaster

Hubbell's 2001 neutral theory unifies biodiversity and biogeography by modelling steady-state distributions of species richness and abundances across spatio-temporal scales. Accurate predictions have issued from its core premise that all species have identical vital rates. Yet no ecologist believes that species are identical in reality. Here I explain this paradox in terms of the ecological equivalence that species must achieve at their coexistence equilibrium, defined by zero net fitness for all regardless of intrinsic differences between them. I show that the distinction of realised from intrinsic vital rates is crucial to evaluating community resilience. An analysis of competitive interactions reveals how zero-sum patterns of abundance emerge for species with contrasting life-history traits as for identical species. I develop a stochastic model to simulate community assembly from a random drift of invasions sustaining the dynamics of recruitment following deaths and extinctions. Species are allocated identical intrinsic vital rates for neutral dynamics, or random intrinsic vital rates and competitive abilities for niche dynamics either on a continuous scale or between dominant-fugitive extremes. Resulting communities have steady-state distributions of the same type for more or less extremely differentiated species as for identical species. All produce negatively skewed log-normal distributions of species abundance, zero-sum relationships of total abundance to area, and Arrhenius relationships of species to area. Intrinsically identical species nevertheless support fewer total individuals, because their densities impact as strongly on each other as on themselves. Truly neutral communities have measurably lower abundance/area and higher species/abundance ratios. Neutral scenarios can be parameterized as null hypotheses for testing competitive release, which is a sure signal of niche dynamics. Ignoring the true strength of interactions between and within species risks a substantial misrepresentation of community resilience to habitat loss.


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