Ecology Letters (2009) 12: 1385–1393
In the classic spatially implicit formulation of Hubbell’s neutral theory of biodiversity a local community receives immigrants from a metacommunity operating on a relatively slow timescale, and dispersal into the local community is governed by an immigration parameter m. A current problem with neutral theory is that m lacks a clear biological interpretation. Here, we derive analytical expressions that relate the immigration parameter m to the geometry of the plot defining the local community and the parameters of a dispersal kernel. Our results facilitate more rigorous and extensive tests of the neutral theory: we conduct a test of neutral theory by comparing estimates of m derived from fits to empirical species abundance distributions to those derived from dispersal kernels and find acceptable correspondence; and we generate a new prediction of neutral theory by investigating how the shapes of species abundance distributions change theoretically as the spatial scale of observation changes. We also discuss how our main analytical results can be used to assess the error in the mean-field approximations associated with spatially implicit formulations of neutral theory.