Research ArticleECOLOGY

The shape of terrestrial abundance distributions

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Science Advances  25 Sep 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 8, e1500082
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500082

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Ecologists widely accept that the distribution of abundances in most communities is fairly flat but heavily dominated by a few species. The reason for this is that species abundances are thought to follow certain theoretical distributions that predict such a pattern. However, previous studies have focused on either a few theoretical distributions or a few empirical distributions. I illustrate abundance patterns in 1055 samples of trees, bats, small terrestrial mammals, birds, lizards, frogs, ants, dung beetles, butterflies, and odonates. Five existing theoretical distributions make inaccurate predictions about the frequencies of the most common species and of the average species, and most of them fit the overall patterns poorly, according to the maximum likelihood–related Kullback-Leibler divergence statistic. Instead, the data support a low-dominance distribution here called the “double geometric.” Depending on the value of its two governing parameters, it may resemble either the geometric series distribution or the lognormal series distribution. However, unlike any other model, it assumes both that richness is finite and that species compete unequally for resources in a two-dimensional niche landscape, which implies that niche breadths are variable and that trait distributions are neither arrayed along a single dimension nor randomly associated. The hypothesis that niche space is multidimensional helps to explain how numerous species can coexist despite interacting strongly.

  • abundance distributions
  • competition
  • niche models
  • Species Richness
  • terrestrial ecology

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