, Volume 83, Issue 1, pp 35-47

First online:

A new model for the continuum concept

  • M. P. AustinAffiliated withDivision of Wildlife & Ecology, CSIRO
  • , T. M. SmithAffiliated withEcosystems Dynamics Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


A reformulation of the continuum concept is presented after considering the implications of the community/continuum controversy and current niche theory. Community is a spatial concept dependent on landscape pattern while the continuum is an environmental concept referring to an abstract space. When applying niche theory to plants, the mechanisms of competition are ill-defined and the assumption of bell-shaped response curves for species unrealistic.

Eight testable propositions on the pattern of response of vegetation to environmental gradients are presented 1. Environmental gradients are of two types. a) resource gradients or b) direct physiological gradients. 2. The fundamental niche response of species to resource gradients is a series of similar nested response curves. 3. The fundamental niche response of species to direct gradients is a series of separate, independent, overlapping response curves. 4. Species fundamental response curves are such that they have a relative performance advantage in some part of the environmental space. 5. The shape of the realized niche is variable even bimodal but predictable from the fundamental response given the other species present. Propositions 6–8 describe the response shapes of emergent community properties to environmental gradient; species richness is bimodal, dominance trimodal and standing crop unimodal. Detailed comparisons of these propositions are made with the alternative theories of Ellenberg, Gauch and Whittaker, Grime, and Tilman. These theories are incomplete lacking several generally accepted properties of plants and vegetation.


Environmental gradient Fundamental niche Niche theory Realized niche Species response curve