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Confronting different models of community structure to species-abundance data: a Bayesian model comparison




Species abundances are undoubtedly the most widely available macroecological data, but can we use them to distinguish among several models of community structure? Here we present a Bayesian analysis of species-abundance data that yields a full joint probability distribution of each model's parameters plus a relatively parameter-independent criterion, the posterior Bayes factor, to compare these models. We illustrate our approach by comparing three classical distributions: the zero-sum multinomial (ZSM) distribution, based on Hubbell's neutral model, the multivariate Poisson lognormal distribution (MPLN), based on niche arguments, and the discrete broken stick (DBS) distribution, based on MacArthur's broken stick model. We give explicit formulas for the probability of observing a particular species-abundance data set in each model, and argue that conditioning on both sample size and species count is needed to allow comparisons between the two distributions. We apply our approach to two neotropical communities (trees, fish). We find that DBS is largely inferior to ZSM and MPLN for both communities. The tree data do not allow discrimination between ZSM and MPLN, but for the fish data ZSM (neutral model) overwhelmingly outperforms MPLN (niche model), suggesting that dispersal plays a previously underestimated role in structuring tropical freshwater fish communities. We advocate this approach for identifying the relative importance of dispersal and niche-partitioning in determining diversity of different ecological groups of species under different environmental conditions.

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