Biology Department and the Ecology Center, Utah State University, Logan UT 84322, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The hollow curve species abundance distribution describes the pattern of large numbers of rare species and a small number of common species in a community. The species abundance distribution is one of the most ubiquitous patterns in nature and many models have been proposed to explain the mechanisms that generate this pattern. While there have been numerous comparisons of species abundance distribution models, most of these comparisons only use a small subset of available models, focus on a single ecosystem or taxonomic group, and fail to use the most appropriate statistical methods. This makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about which, if any, models provide the best empirical fit to species abundance distributions. I compiled data from the literature to significantly expand the available data for underrepresented taxonomic groups, and combined this with other macroecological datasets to perform comprehensive model comparisons for the species abundance distribution. A multiple model comparison showed that most available models for the species abundance distribution fit the data equivalently well across a diverse array of ecosystems and taxonomic groups. In addition, a targeted comparison of the species abundance distribution predicted by a major ecological theory, the unified neutral theory of biodiversity (neutral theory), against a non-neutral model of species abundance, demonstrates that it is difficult to distinguish between these two classes of theory based on patterns in the species abundance distribution. In concert, these studies call into question the potential for using the species abundance distribution to infer the processes operating in ecological systems.