Niche and fitness differences relate the maintenance of diversity to ecosystem function

Ian T. Carroll, Bradley J. Cardinale, Roger M. Nisbet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

173 Scopus citations


The frequently observed positive correlation between species diversity and community biomass is thought to depend on both the degree of resource partitioning and on competitive dominance between consumers, two properties that are also central to theories of species coexistence. To make an explicit link between theory on the causes and consequences of biodiversity, we define in a precise way two kinds of differences among species: niche differences, which promote coexistence, and relative fitness differences, which promote competitive exclusion. In a classic model of exploitative competition, promoting coexistence by increasing niche differences typically, although not universally, increases the "relative yield total," a measure of diversity's effect on the biomass of competitors. In addition, however, we show that promoting coexistence by decreasing relative fitness differences also increases the relative yield total. Thus, two fundamentally different mechanisms of species coexistence both strengthen the influence of diversity on biomass yield. The model and our analysis also yield insight on the interpretation of experimental diversity manipulations. Specifically, the frequently reported "complementarity effect" appears to give a largely skewed estimate of resource partitioning. Likewise, the "selection effect" does not seem to isolate biomass changes attributable to species composition rather than species richness, as is commonly presumed. We conclude that past inferences about the cause of observed diversity-function relationships may be unreliable, and that new empirical estimates of niche and relative fitness differences are necessary to uncover the ecological mechanisms responsible for diversity-function relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1157-1165
Number of pages9
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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