Although the distribution of plant species abundance in a Minnesota grassland was consistent with neutral theory, niche but not neutral mechanisms were supported by the ability of species traits to predict species abundances in three experimental grassland communities. In particular, data from 27 species grown in monoculture showed that species differed in a trait, R*, which is the level to which each species reduced the concentration of soil nitrate, the limiting soil nutrient and which is predicted to be inversely associated with competitive ability for nitrogen (N). In these N-limited habitats, species abundance ranks correlated with their predicted competitive ranks: low R* species, on average dominated. These correlations were significantly different than expected for neutral theory, which assumes the exchangeability of species traits. Additionally, we found that changes in relative abundance after environmental change (N-addition or disturbance) were not neutral but also were significantly associated with R*.