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BMC Biol. 2005 Mar 1;3:5.

Negative density-distribution relationship in butterflies.

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Metsähallitus, Natural Heritage Services, P.O. Box 36, 40101 Jyväskylä, Finland. <>



Because "laws of nature" do not exist in ecology, much of the foundations of community ecology rely on broad statistical generalisations. One of the strongest generalisations is the positive relationship between density and distribution within a given taxonomic assemblage; that is, locally abundant species are more widespread than locally sparse species. Several mechanisms have been proposed to create this positive relationship, and the testing of these mechanisms is attracting increasing attention.


We report a strong, but counterintuitive, negative relationship between density and distribution in the butterfly fauna of Finland. With an exceptionally comprehensive data set (data includes all 95 resident species in Finland and over 1.5 million individuals), we have been able to submit several of the mechanisms to powerful direct empirical testing. Without exception, we failed to find evidence for the proposed mechanisms creating a positive density-distribution relationship. On the contrary, we found that many of the mechanisms are equally able to generate a negative relationship.


We suggest that one important determinant of density-distribution relationships is the geographical location of the study: on the edge of a distribution range, suitable habitat patches are likely to be more isolated than in the core of the range. In such a situation, only the largest and best quality patches are likely to be occupied, and these by definition can support a relatively dense population leading to a negative density-distribution relationship. Finally, we conclude that generalizations about the positive density-distribution relationship should be made more cautiously.

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