The contribution of vegetation ecology to the study of biodiversity depends on better communication between the different research paradigms in ecology. Recent developments in vegetation theory and associated statistical modelling techniques are reviewed for their relevance to biodiversity. Species composition and collective properties such as species richness vary as a continuum in a multi-dimensional environmental space; a concept which needs to be incorporated into biodiversity studies. Different kinds of environmental gradients can be recognised and species responses to them vary. Species response curves of eucalypts to an environmental gradient of mean annual temperature have been shown to exhibit a particular pattern of skewed response curves. Generalised linear modelling (GLM) and generalised additive modelling (GAM) techniques are important tools for biodiversity studies. They have successfully distinguished the contribution of environmental (climatic) and spatial (history and species dispersal ability) variables in determining forest tree composition in New Zealand.
Species richness studies are examined at global, regional and local scales. At all scales, direct and resource environmental gradients need to be incorporated into the analysis rather than indirect gradients e.g. latitude which have no direct physiological influence on biota. Evidence indicates that species richness at the regional scale is sensitive to environment, confounding current studies on local/regional species richness relationships. Plant community experiments require designs based on environmental gradients rather than dependent biological properties such as productivity or species richness to avoid confounding the biotic components. Neglect of climatic and other environmental gradients and the concentration on the collective properties of species assemblages has limited recent biodiversity studies. Conservation evaluation could benefit from greater use of the continuum concepts and statistical modelling techniques of vegetation ecology. The future development of ecology will depend on testing the different assumptions of competing research paradigms and a more inclusive synthesis of ecological theory.