Neutral Theory and the Evolution of Ecological Equivalence

Ecology. 2006 Jun;87(6):1387-98. doi: 10.1890/0012-9658(2006)87[1387:ntateo];2.


Since the publication of the unified neutral theory in 2001, there has been much discussion of the theory, pro and con. The hypothesis of ecological equivalence is the fundamental yet controversial idea behind neutral theory. Assuming trophically similar species are demographically alike (symmetric) on a per capita basis is only an approximation, but it is equivalent to asking: How many of the patterns of ecological communities are the result of species similarities, rather than of species differences? The strategy behind neutral theory is to see how far one can get with the simplification of assuming ecological equivalence before introducing more complexity. In another paper, I review the empirical evidence that led me to hypothesize ecological equivalence among many of the tree species in the species-rich tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island (BCI). In this paper, I develop a simple model for the evolution of ecological equivalence or niche convergence, using as an example evolution of the suite of life history traits characteristic of shade tolerant tropical tree species. Although the model is simple, the conclusions from it seem likely to be robust. I conclude that ecological equivalence for resource use are likely to evolve easily and often, especially in species-rich communities that are dispersal and recruitment limited. In the case of the BCI forest, tree species are strongly dispersal- and recruitment-limited, not only because of restricted seed dispersal, but also because of low recruitment success due to heavy losses of the seedling stages to predators and pathogens and other abiotic stresses such as drought. These factors and the high species richness of the community strongly reduce the potential for competitive exclusion of functionally equivalent or nearly equivalent species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecology / methods
  • Models, Biological*
  • Seeds / physiology
  • Trees / physiology*