Neutral theory and the species abundance distribution: recent developments and prospects for unifying niche and neutral perspectives

Published in 2001, The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography (UNTB) emphasizes the importance of stochastic processes in ecological community structure, and has challenged the traditional niche-based view of ecology. While neutral models have since been applied to a broad range of ecological and macroecological phenomena, the majority of research relating to neutral theory has focused exclusively on the species abundance distribution (SAD). Here, we synthesize the large body of work on neutral theory in the context of the species abundance distribution, with a particular focus on integrating ideas from neutral theory with traditional niche theory. First, we summarize the basic tenets of neutral theory; both in general and in the context of SADs. Second, we explore the issues associated with neutral theory and the SAD, such as complications with fitting and model comparison, the underlying assumptions of neutral models, and the difficultly of linking pattern to process. Third, we highlight the advances in understanding of SADs that have resulted from neutral theory and models. Finally, we focus consideration on recent developments aimed at unifying neutral- and niche-based approaches to ecology, with a particular emphasis on what this means for SAD theory, embracing, for instance, ideas of emergent neutrality and stochastic niche theory. We put forward the argument that the prospect of the unification of niche and neutral perspectives represents one of the most promising future avenues of neutral theory research.