Research on relative species abundance provides new theoretical foundation

A paper in this week's journal Nature, building on radically new ecological theory by University of Georgia professor Stephen Hubbell, challenges half-century-old ideas about how natural plant and animal communities are put together.

The paper in Nature includes research by physicists Jayanth Banavar and Igor Volkov of Penn State University and Amos Maritan of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, along with Hubbell.

Conventional ecological theory says that species coexist with one another by being different and the best competitors in their own ecological niches (functional roles) in the community. Hubbell challenged this theory in a widely acclaimed but controversial 2001 book called "The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography." In it he argued that many of the ecological patterns we see can be more simply and often better explained if competing species are treated as if they were essentially identical.

"This theory flies in the face of 50 years of research that has celebrated the uniqueness of all species in nature," said Hubbell, a professor of plant biology at UGA. "And while I certainly do believe that many aspects of species are unique, this theory is, more and more, fitting the patterns we see in nature."

Banavar, Volkov and Maritan were intrigued by the theory, and out of their reading of Hubbell's book sprang an intense collaboration, the first fruit of which is the paper in this week's Nature. The paper provides Hubbell's theory with a mathematically stronger and more general theoretical framework, which allowed the authors to solve one of the oldest and most celebrated theoretical problems in ecology.

"Sixty years ago, the great geneticist and statistician, Ronald Fisher, discovered a mathematical distribution describing patterns of relative species abundance - the pattern of commonness and rarity in species - in ecological communities," said Hubbell. "Fisher had no biolo

Contact: Kim Carlyle
University of Georgia

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