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The impact of species-neutral stage structure on macroecological patterns


Despite its radical assumption of ecological equivalence between species, neutral biodiversity theory can often provide good fits to species abundance distributions observed in nature. Major criticisms of neutral theory have focused on interspecific differences, which are in conflict with ecological equivalence. However, neutrality in nature is also broken by differences between conspecific individuals at different life stages, which in many communities may vastly exceed interspecific differences between individuals at similar stages. These within-species asymmetries have not been fully explored in species-neutral models, and it is not known whether demographic stage structure affects macroecological patterns in neutral theory. Here, we present a two-stage neutral model where fecundity and mortality change as an individual transitions from one stage to the other. We explore several qualitatively different scenarios, and compare numerically obtained species abundance distributions to the predictions of unstructured neutral theory. We find that abundance distributions are generally robust to this kind of stage structure, but significant departures from unstructured predictions occur if adults have sufficiently low fecundity and mortality. In addition, we show that the cumulative number of births per species, which is distributed as a power law with a 3/2 exponent, is invariant even when the abundance distribution departs from unstructured model predictions. Our findings potentially explain power law-like abundance distributions in organisms with strong demographic structure, such as eusocial insects and humans, and partially rehabilitate species abundance distributions from past criticisms as to their inability to distinguish between biological mechanisms.

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The authors thank Evan Siemann and David Tilman for generously agreeing to our use of their data in this paper. The data are available at JOD acknowledges the Simons Foundation Grant # 376199, McDonnell Foundation Grant # 220020439, and Templeton World Charity Foundation Grant # TWCF0079/AB47.

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Correspondence to Rafael D’Andrea.

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D’Andrea, R., O’Dwyer, J.P. The impact of species-neutral stage structure on macroecological patterns. Theor Ecol 10, 433–442 (2017).

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  • Species abundance distribution
  • Demographic structure
  • Stage structure
  • Progeny distribution
  • Neutral biodiversity theory