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Keywords:

  • Community structure;
  • diversity patterns;
  • invasion ecology;
  • neutral theory;
  • niche concept;
  • relative species abundance;
  • species competition

Abstract

Aim  The invasion of natural communities by alien species represents a serious threat, but creates opportunities to learn about community functions. Neutral theory proposes that the niche concept may not be needed to explain the assemblage and diversity of natural communities, challenging the classical view of community ecology and generating a lasting debate. Biological invasions, when considered as natural experiments, can be used to contrast some of the predictions of neutral and classic niche theories.

Location  Global.

Methods  We use data from biological invasions as natural experiments to contrast some of the fundamental predictions of neutral theory.

Results  Some emerging patterns did not differ from neutral model expectations (e.g. the relationship between native and exotic species richness, invasibility of resource-rich habitats, and the relationship between propagule release and invasion success). Nevertheless, other patterns (e.g. experimental evidence of the relationship between diversity and susceptibility to invasion, the invasion of communities with a low resource availability, invasiveness related to species traits) contrasted with the predictions that can be inferred from neutral theory.

Main conclusions  Neutral theory correctly highlights the need to include randomness in models of community structure. Biological invasion patterns show that neutral forces are important in structuring natural communities, but the patterns differ from those inferred from a complete neutral model. For biodiversity-conservation purposes, the implications of accepting or not accepting neutral theory as a process-based theory are very important.