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Disturbance, neutral theory, and patterns of beta diversity in soil communities.

  • Maaß, Stefanie1
  • Migliorini, Massimo2
  • Rillig, Matthias C1
  • Caruso, Tancredi3
  • 1 Institut für Biologie, Plant Ecology, Freie Universität Berlin Altensteinstraße 6, 14195, Berlin, Germany ; Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB) 14195, Berlin, Germany. , (Germany)
  • 2 Department of Life Sciences, University of Siena via Aldo Moro 2, Siena, 53100, Italy. , (Italy)
  • 3 School of Biological Sciences, Queen's University of Belfast 97 Lisburn Road, Belfast, BT9 7BL, Northern Ireland. , (Ireland)
Published Article
Ecology and Evolution
Wiley (John Wiley & Sons)
Publication Date
Dec 01, 2014
DOI: 10.1002/ece3.1313
PMID: 25558367


Beta diversity describes how local communities within an area or region differ in species composition/abundance. There have been attempts to use changes in beta diversity as a biotic indicator of disturbance, but lack of theory and methodological caveats have hampered progress. We here propose that the neutral theory of biodiversity plus the definition of beta diversity as the total variance of a community matrix provide a suitable, novel, starting point for ecological applications. Observed levels of beta diversity (BD) can be compared to neutral predictions with three possible outcomes: Observed BD equals neutral prediction or is larger (divergence) or smaller (convergence) than the neutral prediction. Disturbance might lead to either divergence or convergence, depending on type and strength. We here apply these ideas to datasets collected on oribatid mites (a key, very diverse soil taxon) under several regimes of disturbances. When disturbance is expected to increase the heterogeneity of soil spatial properties or the sampling strategy encompassed a range of diverging environmental conditions, we observed diverging assemblages. On the contrary, we observed patterns consistent with neutrality when disturbance could determine homogenization of soil properties in space or the sampling strategy encompassed fairly homogeneous areas. With our method, spatial and temporal changes in beta diversity can be directly and easily monitored to detect significant changes in community dynamics, although the method itself cannot inform on underlying mechanisms. However, human-driven disturbances and the spatial scales at which they operate are usually known. In this case, our approach allows the formulation of testable predictions in terms of expected changes in beta diversity, thereby offering a promising monitoring tool.

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