Experimental evidence for neutral community dynamics governing an insect assemblage


  • Corresponding Editor: J. M. Levine.


The high levels of species diversity observed within many biological communities are captivating, yet the mechanisms that may maintain such diversity remain elusive. Many of the phenotypic differences observed among species cause interspecific trade-offs that ultimately act to maintain diversity through niche-based coexistence. In contrast, neutral community theory argues that phenotypic differences among species do not contribute to maintaining species diversity because species are ecologically equivalent. Here we provide experimental and observational field evidence that two phylogenetically very distant Enallagma species appear to be ecologically equivalent to one another. Experimental abundance manipulations showed that each species gains no demographic advantage at low relative abundance, whereas manipulations of total Enallagma abundance resulted in large increases in per capita mortality and large decreases in growth for both species. Moreover, demographic rates and relative abundances of multiple Enallagma species were uncorrelated with major environmental gradients in an observational study of 20 natural lakes. These are the expected patterns if species are ecologically equivalent. However, these results do not imply that all damselflies in these lakes are ecologically identical. Previous experimental results have demonstrated the operation of strong coexistence mechanisms maintaining Enallagma and its sister-genus Ischnura in these littoral food webs. Combined with a simple theoretical model we present, these results taken together show how both neutral and niche dynamics can jointly structure communities.