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Am Nat. 2005 Oct;166(4):458-69. Epub 2005 Aug 5.

Developing unified theories in ecology as exemplified with diversity gradients.

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Division of Environmental Biology, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA.


A scientific field matures as its theoretical underpinnings consolidate around unified theories: conceptual structures consisting of a few general propositions that encompass a wide domain of phenomena and from which can be derived an array of models. We demonstrate this process with a synthetic theory of ecological gradients and species richness. Our unified theory rests on four propositions. First, variation in some environmental factor effects variation in the number of individuals creating a gradient. Second, in a uniform environment of fixed area, more individuals lead to more species. Third, the variance of an environmental factor increases with its mean for sites of equal area. Fourth, all nonmonotonic relationships (i.e., hump shaped or U shaped) require a trade-off in organismal performance or in population characteristics with respect to the environmental gradient. We identify 17 models that link environmental gradients with diversity, show their relationship to our framework, and describe issues surrounding their empirical testing. We illustrate how a general theory can be used to build new models such as that for the U-shaped productivity-diversity relationship. Finally, we discuss how our theory could be unified further with other theories of diversity and indicate other areas of ecology that are ripe for unification. By providing an example of the process of theory unification, we hope to encourage such efforts throughout ecology.

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