Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1019–1029
Despite decades of research documenting niche differences between species, we lack a quantitative understanding of their effect on coexistence in natural communities. We perturbed an empirical sagebrush steppe community model to remove the demographic effect of niche differences and quantify their impact on coexistence. With stabilizing mechanisms operating, all species showed positive growth rates when rare, generating stable coexistence. Fluctuation-independent mechanisms contributed more than temporal variability to coexistence and operated more strongly on recruitment than growth or survival. As expected, removal of stabilizing niche differences led to extinction of all inferior competitors. However, complete exclusion required 300–400 years, indicating small fitness differences among species. Our results show an ‘excess’ of niche differences: stabilizing mechanisms were not only strong enough to maintain diversity but were much stronger than necessary given the small fitness differences. The diversity of this community cannot be understood without consideration of niche differences.