Theoretical Ecology

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 81–109 | Cite as

A stochastic biodiversity model with overlapping niche structure

  • Sharon BewickEmail author
  • Ryan A. Chisholm
  • Erol Akçay
  • William Godsoe


The niche is a fundamental ecological concept that underpins many explanations of patterns of biodiversity. The complexity of niche processes in ecological systems, however, means that it is difficult to capture them accurately in theoretical models of community assembly. In this study, we build upon simple neutral biodiversity models by adding the important ingredient of overlapping niche structure. Our model is spatially implicit and contains a fixed number of equal-sized habitats. Each species in the metacommunity arises through a speciation event; at which time, it is randomly assigned a fundamental niche or set of environments/habitats in which it can persist. Within each habitat, species compete with other species that have different but overlapping fundamental niches. Species abundances then change through ecological drift; each, however, is constrained by its maximum niche breadth and by the presence of other species in its habitats. Using our model, we derive analytical expressions for steady-state species abundance distributions, steady-state distributions of niche breadth across individuals and across species, and dynamic distributions of niche breadth across species. With this framework, we identify the conditions that produce the log-series species abundance distribution familiar from neutral models. We then identify how overlapping niche structure can lead to other species abundance distributions and, in particular, ask whether these new distributions differ significantly from species abundance distributions predicted by non-overlapping niche models. Finally, we extend our analysis to consider additional distributions associated with realized niche breadths. Overall, our results show that models with overlapping niches can exhibit behavior similar to neutral models, with the caveat that species with narrow fundamental niche breadths will be very rare. If narrow-niche species are common, it must be because they are in a non-overlapping niche or have countervailing advantages over broad-niche species. This result highlights the role that niches can play in establishing demographic neutrality.


Niche overlap Habitat heterogeneity Biodiversity Species abundance distribution Niche breadth distribution Neutral theory 



The authors thank Stephen Pacala, Paul Armsworth, Joe Hughes, and Nathan Sanders for helpful discussions. RAC acknowledges the financial support of the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories and the HSBC Climate Partnership. SB, EA, and WG conducted this work while Postdoctoral Fellows at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), an Institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture through NSF Award #EF-0832858, with additional support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. RAC was assisted by attendance as a Short-term Visitor at NIMBioS. We acknowledge the support of the University of Tennessee, Division of Biology Field Station.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sharon Bewick
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ryan A. Chisholm
    • 2
  • Erol Akçay
    • 3
  • William Godsoe
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological ScienceNational University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.Bio-Protection Research CentreLincoln UniversityLincolnNew Zealand

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