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Conceptual Synthesis in Community Ecology

Community ecology is often perceived as a mess, given the seemingly vast number of processes that can underlie the many patterns of interest, and the apparent uniqueness of each study system. However, at the most general level, patterns in the composition and diversity of speciesthe subject matter of community ecologyare influenced by only four classes of process: selection, drift, speciation, and dispersal. Selection represents deterministic fitness differences among species, drift represents stochastic changes in species abundance, speciation creates new species, and dispersal is the movement of organisms across space. All theoretical and conceptual models in community ecology can be understood with respect to their emphasis on these four processes. Empirical evidence exists for all of these processes and many of their interactions, with a predominance of studies on selection. Organizing the material of community ecology according to this framework can clarify the essential similarities and differences among the many conceptual and theoretical approaches to the discipline, and it can also allow for the articulation of a very general theory of community dynamics: species are added to communities via speciation and dispersal, and the relative abundances of these species are then shaped by drift and selection, as well as ongoing dispersal, to drive community dynamics.