Letter | Published:

Coral reef diversity refutes the neutral theory of biodiversity

Nature volume 440, pages 8082 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation


  • An Erratum to this article was published on 05 October 2006


The global decline of coral reefs1,2 highlights the need to understand the mechanisms that regulate community structure and sustain biodiversity in these systems. The neutral theory, which assumes that individuals are demographically identical regardless of species, seeks to explain ubiquitous features of community structure and biodiversity patterns3,4,5. Here we present a test of neutral-theory predictions with the use of an extensive species-level data set of Indo-Pacific coral communities. We show that coral assemblages differ markedly from neutral-model predictions for patterns of community similarity and the relative abundance of species. Within local communities, neutral models do not fit relative abundance distributions as well as the classical log-normal distribution. Relative abundances of species across local communities also differ markedly from neutral-theory predictions: coral communities exhibit community similarity values that are far more variable, and lower on average, than the neutral theory can produce. Empirical community similarities deviate from the neutral model in a direction opposite to that predicted in previous critiques of the neutral theory6,7,8,9. Instead, our results support spatio-temporal environmental stochasticity as a major driver of diversity patterns on coral reefs10,11.

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We thank M. Barbosa, H. Cornell, R. Karlson, staff, students and volunteers of the Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity, and the High Performance Computing staff, at James Cook University for assistance with various stages of this project. This work was supported by James Cook University, the Australian Research Council, and the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, Portugal.

Author information


  1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and

    • Maria Dornelas
    • , Sean R. Connolly
    •  & Terence P. Hughes
  2. School of Marine Biology and Aquaculture, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • Maria Dornelas
    •  & Sean R. Connolly


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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maria Dornelas.

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This Table shows the coral abundance distributions. Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 have been added post-publication of the original paper. See Erratum to original paper (doi:10.1038/nature05187).

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This Table shows the similarity matrix. Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 have been added post-publication of the original paper. See Erratum to original paper (doi:10.1038/nature05187).

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Figure 1

    This figure shows a comparison of the fit of the neutral model and the poisson lognormal to coral community species abundance distributions.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Figure 2

    These two figures show the frequency distribution of Bray-Curtis similarities for neutral model simulations: for different diversities (a) and different immigration rates (b).

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Figure 3

    These three figures show the analysis of stabilization in similarity and diversity under neutral dynamics: mean (a) and standard deviation (b) of Bray-Curtis similarity, and % change in species richness (c) through time.

Word documents

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Methods

    This file contains additional information regarding the comparison between the poisson lognormal and the neutral model, and regarding similarity patterns under the neutral model.

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