Here I present an integrated framework for species abundance distributions (SADs) that goes beyond the neutral theory without relying on complex mechanistic models. I give some general mathematical results on the relationship between SADs and their underlying dynamics, and analyse an extensive set of marine phytoplankton data in order to test the neutral theory against this broader framework.

The main theoretical and empirical results are: (i) the logseries, which is the SAD produced by simple neutral models without migration, is quite robust in response to additional factors, including some forms of niche segregation; (ii) when there is a small but significant deviation from a logseries, the SAD will generally have the form of a power law, regardless of the specific mechanisms; (iii) when the deviation is moderate, the SAD will generally have the form of a lognormal, regardless of the specific mechanisms; (iv) although in a wide range of situations neutral and non-neutral dynamics cannot be distinguished from the SAD alone, some empirical SADs do have the fingerprint of non-neutrality: this is the case of marine dinoflagellates, in contrast to marine diatoms, which adjust to neutral theory predictions. The results for marine phytoplankton illustrate that both neutral and non-neutral mechanisms coexist in nature, and seem to have different weights in different groups of organisms.

In addition to the above findings, I discuss several related contributions and point out some important pitfalls in the literature.