Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Research on relative species abundance provides new theoretical foundation

28.08.2003


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 biological idea at all why it worked so well, but now we do. In this paper, we show that Fisher’s distribution falls right out of the theory into your lap and explains what it means biologically."

The Nature paper also shows how Fisher’s distribution changes when the immigration of species into an ecological community is restricted. This is a famous unsolved problem in the Theory of Island Biogeography published by renowned biologists E. O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur 36 years ago.

For the past half century, the field of ecology has operated inside a Darwinian paradigm that assumes species in nature are "niche-differentiated" - that is, they have largely separate roles to play in biological communities. During that time, scientists have tried to measure the characteristics of species to predict their distribution and abundance in nature by measuring their "niche characteristics."

Ecological nature is, many scientists assert, fundamentally asymmetric because of the inherent uniqueness of species in ecological communities. This is called the Niche Assembly Theory. According to this theory, species coexist in closed assemblages that are in equilibrium or near equilibrium.

"These niche assembly models have not really worked as well as we hoped, though we have learned a lot," said Hubbell. As it turns out, there is a great deal scientists do not yet know about how species form ecological communities. Predictive ecological theories that provide real-world answers are needed for issues ranging from protecting biological diversity to improving land management laws.

Starting in 1979, Hubbell began to develop a theory that grouped similar species instead of assuming all species are different and act differently. Over time, he began to discover that many patterns that had heretofore been explained by "niches" might have a simpler explanation.

Hubbell began to formulate what is now generally called "Neutral Theory." He believes that Symmetric Neutral Theory, as it is now called, is consistent with a number of major ecological pattern regularities at large geographic spatial scales as well as evolutionary time scales, many of which have resisted explanation by asymmetric niche-assembly theory.

"One of my personal lessons from this interdisciplinary collaboration is that physics may provide fresh approaches to some old problems in ecology," said Hubbell. "Ecologists often start with an already complex hypothesis and then add even more complexity. Physicists tend to start with the simplest hypothesis they can think of and then add complexity only when they’re forced to by the data. Maybe this is why they jumped on my Neutral Theory."

Hubbell admits that his Neutral Theory will probably continue to be controversial among many of his colleagues for some time to come, and he expects the new paper in Nature to draw considerable scrutiny. The paper rebuts some of the firestorm of criticism kicked off by Hubbell’s 2001 book, which brought both supporters and critics into a major scientific debate over the book’s validity.

Kim Carlyle | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.uga.edu/

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Upcycling of PET Bottles: New Ideas for Resource Cycles in Germany
25.06.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Betriebsfestigkeit und Systemzuverlässigkeit LBF

nachricht Dry landscapes can increase disease transmission
20.06.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Future electronic components to be printed like newspapers

A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.

The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A smart safe rechargeable zinc ion battery based on sol-gel transition electrolytes

20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Reversing cause and effect is no trouble for quantum computers

20.07.2018 | Information Technology

Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern

20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>