The significance of assemblage-level thinning for species richness


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1 A unimodal relationship between species richness and primary productivity is commonly reported. To explain this pattern, the mechanisms proposed in the many hypotheses are generally complex and almost all are without a strong empirical foundation. Here we evaluate the role of self-thinning in plant assemblages: assemblage-level thinning.

2 We developed a simple two-parameter model of species richness that predicts that plant species richness will be determined by a unimodal relationship between total plant density and above-ground biomass. This model provides a very narrowly defined set of testable quantitative predictions, and thus is the first falsifiable model of assemblage-level thinning. We fit this model to the species richness–above-ground biomass data from 14 empirical studies that are often cited as evidence of a general diversity–productivity relationship. In addition, we compared our model to two other models, one more flexible and one more constrained than our own.

3 We found that our model of species richness explained a substantial and statistically significant portion of the species richness observed in 11 of the 14 empirical studies of species richness–biomass patterns. Therefore, given the conservative nature of our model, and the number of previously published data sets explained by this model, we argue that assemblage-level thinning not only provides a viable and exceedingly parsimonious explanation, but may also be a widespread phenomenon.