The worldwide distribution of toxicants is an important yet understudied driver of biodiversity, and the mechanisms relating toxicity to diversity have not been adequately explored. Here, we present a community model integrating demography, dispersal and toxicant-induced effects on reproduction driven by intraspecific and interspecific variability in toxicity tolerance. We compare model predictions to 458 species abundance distributions (SADs) observed along concentration gradients of toxicants to show that the best predictions occur when intraspecific variability is five and ten times higher than interspecific variability. At high concentrations, lower settings of intraspecific variability resulted in predictions of community extinction that were not supported by the observed SADs. Subtle but significant species losses at low concentrations were predicted only when intraspecific variability dominated over interspecific variability. Our results propose intraspecific variability as a key driver for biodiversity sustenance in ecosystems challenged by environmental change.
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