Ecologists broadly accept that the number of species present within a region balances regional processes of immigration and speciation against competitive and other interactions between populations that limit distribution and constrain diversity. Although ecological theory has, for a long time, addressed the premise that ecological space can be filled to ‘capacity’ with species, only with the availability of time-calibrated phylogenies has it been possible to test the theory that diversification slows as the number of species in a region increases. Focusing on the deciduous trees of eastern North America, this study tested predictions from competition theory concerning the distribution and abundance of species.
Local assemblages of trees tabulated in a previous study published in 1950 were analysed. Assemblages were ordinated with respect to species composition by non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMS). Most of the variance in species abundance and distribution was concentrated among closely related (i.e. congeneric) species, indicating evolutionary lability. Species distribution and abundance were unrelated to the number of close relatives, suggesting that competitive effects are diffuse. Distances between pairs of species in NMS space did not differ significantly from distances between more distantly related species, in contrast to the predictions of both competitive habitat partitioning and ecological sorting of species.
Eastern deciduous forests of North America do not appear to be saturated with species. The distributions and abundances of individual species provide little evidence of being shaped by competition from related, ecologically similar, species. Diversification is constrained by interspecific competition.