Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 973–984
The concept of alternative stable states has long been a dominant framework for studying the influence of historical contingency in community assembly. This concept focuses on stable states, yet many real communities are kept in a transient state by disturbance, and the utility of predictions for stable states in explaining transient states remains unclear. Using a simple model of plant community assembly, we show that the conditions under which historical contingency affects community assembly can differ greatly for stable versus transient states. Differences arise because the contribution of such factors as mortality rate, environmental heterogeneity and plant-soil feedback to historical contingency changes as community assembly proceeds. We also show that transient states can last for a long time relative to immigration rate and generation time. These results argue for a conceptual shift of focus from alternative stable states to alternative transient states for understanding historical contingency in community assembly.