Balancing generality and specificity in ecological gradient analysis with species abundance distributions and individual size distributions

Jian D L Yen, James Thomson, Jonathan Keith, David Paganin, Erica Fleishman, David S. Dobkin, Joanne M Bennett, Ralph Mac Nally

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: Data on ecological communities are often condensed into single-valued diversity indices, which support comparisons among ecosystems but may discard important information. At the other extreme, some studies retain full data on the identities of all species present, which retains maximum information on community structure but occludes comparisons among ecosystems. We sought to determine whether the analysis of species abundance distributions and individual size distributions could support more detailed inferences than diversity indices while remaining sufficiently general to identify fundamental ecological responses in multiple ecosystems. 

Location: The United States and south-eastern Australia. 

Methods: We analysed changes in species abundance distributions and individual size distributions along environmental gradients. We compared analyses of distributions with analyses of five diversity indices and with a distance-based multivariate analysis of species composition. We used data from 1438 fish communities in the United States and from 840 bird communities in the western United States and south-eastern Australia. These communities were sampled over 10-20 years and included 298 species of birds and 488 species of fishes. 

Results: Analyses of species abundance distributions and individual size distributions identified environmental associations that were not found in analyses of diversity indices, and revealed common associations with shrubs in bird communities on different continents and with temperature in communities of birds and fishes. Individual size distributions were associated more closely with environmental variables than were species abundance distributions. 

Main conclusions: Our novel identification of ecological associations suggests that analyses of community distributions might reveal fundamental ecological processes common to multiple ecosystems. Close associations between individual sizes and environmental variables suggest that a greater focus on size in ecological analyses might assist in the development of general models of ecological communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)318-332
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017


  • Biogeography
  • Biological diversity
  • Community ecology
  • Ecosystem function
  • Functional data analysis
  • Gradient analysis
  • Size spectra
  • Species traits

Cite this