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Trends Ecol Evol. 2017 Jun;32(6):429-437. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.03.004. Epub 2017 Mar 28.

Should Environmental Filtering be Abandoned?

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State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol, Key Laboratory of Biodiversity Dynamics and Conservation of Guangdong, Higher Education Institutes, College of Ecology and Evolution, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, PR China; Department of Biological Sciences, University of Toronto-Scarborough, 1265 Military Trail, Toronto, ON, M1C 1A4, Canada; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto,25 Willcocks St., Toronto, ON, M5S 3B2, Canada. Electronic address:
Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, CNRS, 1919 Route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France; Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Coker Hall, CB #3280 120 South Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280, USA.


Environmental filtering, where the environment selects against certain species, is thought to be a major mechanism structuring communities. However, recent criticisms cast doubt on our ability to accurately infer filtering because competition can give rise to patterns identical to those caused by environmental filtering. While experiments can distinguish mechanisms, observational patterns are especially problematic. The environment determines community composition not only directly via survival, but also by influencing competition. If species population growth rates covary with environmental gradients, then outcomes of competitive exclusion will also vary with the environment. Here, we argue that observational studies remain valuable, but inferences about the importance of the environment cannot rely on compositional data alone, and that species abundances, population growth, or traits must be correlated with the environment.


community assembly; competition; ecophylogenetics; functional ecology; niche

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