In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Niche Versus Neutral Models of Community Organization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Debate

Ecology Niche Versus Neutral Models of Community Organization
Lindsay A. Turnbull
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 May 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0010


Until very recently, the field of ecology has operated almost entirely around the concept of the ecological niche, in which species are functionally different. Neutral ecology, in which species are functionally equivalent, is a relative newcomer. Neutral ecology generally emphasizes the importance of stochastic, or random, processes in determining community structure and function, while niche-based ecology emphasizes the importance of deterministic processes. The discussion about the relative merits of niches versus neutral processes in structuring ecological communities is one of the most active areas in ecology today. These two very different views of ecology have led to intense debate but also to many efforts to reconcile these perspectives.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide overviews and introductions to both niche-based ecology and to the unified neutral theory as presented by Stephen Hubbell. Chase and Leibold 2003 is a very good introductory textbook that covers both classical and contemporary niche-based ecology and includes both plant and animal examples. Much of the debate over niches versus neutrality has, however, focused on plant communities, and Tilman’s classic book (Tilman 1982) lays out how resource-based niches could potentially allow many different plant species to coexist, including detailed graphical description of his resource-ratio hypothesis. Silvertown 2004 is a straightforward overview of the different niche mechanisms applicable to plants, including other mechanisms such as competition-colonization tradeoffs, microbial mediation, and the storage effect. For neutral theory, the classic book is Hubbell 2001, in which the neutral theory is formally developed, although the book chapter Hubbell and Foster 1986 is an easy-to-read overview of the theory in its early days, before it was mathematically formalized. Chave 2004 provides an overview of neutral theory that carefully examines its assumptions and includes a selective review of the empirical evidence, with special emphasis on tropical plant communities. In celebration of the tenth anniversary of neutral theory, Rosindell, et al. 2011 provides a more recent overview of progress and indicates potential future directions.

  • Chase, Jonathan M., and Matthew A. Leibold. 2003. Ecological niches: Linking classical and contemporary approaches. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A comprehensive introduction to the niche concept for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Chave, Jerome. 2004. Neutral theory and community ecology. Ecology Letters 7:241–253.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2003.00566.x

    A thought-provoking and balanced view that’s not too technical and suitable for graduate students.

  • Hubbell, Stephen P. 2001. The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The classic presentation of neutral theory, including clear and detailed descriptions of the model assumptions and the zero-sum multinomial distribution.

  • Hubbell, Stephen P., and Robin B. Foster. 1986. Biology, chance and history and the structure of tropical rain forest tree communities. In Community ecology. Edited by Jared Diamond and Ted J. Case, 314–329. New York: Harper & Row.

    An introduction to the basic ideas that led to the development of the neutral theory laid out without the mathematical treatment.

  • Rosindell, James, Stephen P. Hubbell, and Rampal S. Etienne. 2011. The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography at age ten. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 7:340–348.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.03.024

    A tenth-anniversary paper that gives an overview of the achievements of neutral ecology from three of its champions.

  • Silvertown, Jonathan. 2004. Plant coexistence and the niche. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19:605–611.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.09.003

    A balanced and easy-to-read overview for those needing a refresher course in the possible niche mechanisms applicable to plants. Suitable for both undergraduates and graduates.

  • Tilman, David. 1982. Resource competition and community structure. Monographs in Population Biology 17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A classic monograph in community ecology from the well-known Princeton monograph series. David Tilman lays out R and resource ratio theory. Essential reading for graduate students and researchers in community ecology.

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