Reconciling niches and neutrality in a subalpine temperate forest
The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity has been put forth to explain species coexistence in forests worldwide, but its assumption of species equivalence has been met with much debate. Theoretical advancements have reconciled the opposing concepts of neutral and niche theories as two ends of a continuum, improving our understanding of global patterns in diversity and community assembly. However, the relative importance of niche and neutral processes remains understudied in temperate forests. To determine the balance of niche and neutral processes in climatically limited subalpine temperate forests, we established the Utah Forest Dynamics Plot, a 13.64‐ha plot comprising 27,845 stems ≥1 cm diameter at breast height (1.37 m) representing 17 species at 3100 m elevation on the Colorado Plateau. We examined the fit of niche‐ and neutral‐based models to the species abundance distribution (SAD), and tested three underlying assumptions of neutral theory. The neutral model was a poor fit to the SAD, but we did not find the alternative model to provide a better fit. Using spatial analyses, we tested the neutral assumptions of functional equivalence, ecological equivalence, and habitat generality. Half of species analyzed were characterized by non‐neutral recruitment processes, and the two most abundant species exhibited asymmetric competitive and facilitative interactions with each other. The assumption of habitat generality was strongly contradicted, with all common species having habitat preferences. We conclude niche‐based processes play the dominant role in structuring subalpine forest communities, and we suggest possible explanations for variation in the relative importance of niche vs. neutral processes along ecological gradients.