Neutral theory can predict static distributions and abundances of species reasonably well, but it breaks down when applied to changes in communities and species over time. For instance, the neutral model estimates that certain species of rain forest trees are older than Earth.
"The neutral model relies on random chance," O'Dwyer said. "It's like a series of coin flips and a species has to hit heads every time to become very abundant. That doesn't happen very often."
Imagine these ecological models on a spectrum, O'Dwyer says.
"At one end, we have this neutral model with very few parameters and very simple mechanisms and dynamics, but at the other end, we have models where we try to parameterize every detail," O'Dwyer said. "What's been hardest is to take one or two steps down this spectrum from the neutral model without being sucked down to this very complicated end of the spectrum."
By creating a more realistic model that incorporates species differences, O'Dwyer and co-author Ryan Chisholm, an assistant professor at National University of Singapore, have taken an important step down that spectrum.
"Our model is not the ecological equivalent of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which was a conceptual leap for physics," O'Dwyer said. "It is an incremental step at this point. But we will need those conceptual leaps that incorporate the best parts of different models to really understand complex ecological systems better."
O'Dwyer and Chisholm recently reported this work in Ecology Letters. The Templeton World Charity Foundation (grant # TWCF0079/AB47) supported O'Dwyer's work.
The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) is dedicated to interdisciplinary genomic research related to health, energy, agriculture and the environment. The Institut
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Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign