Generalism drives abundance: a computational causal discovery approach


A ubiquitous pattern in ecological systems is that more abundant species tend to be more generalist; that is, they interact with more species or can occur in more habitats. However, there is no consensus on whether generalism drives abundance (a selection process) or abundance drives generalism (a drift process). As it is difficult to conduct direct experiments to solve this chicken-and-egg dilemma, previous studies have used a causal discovery method based on formal logic and have found that abundance drives generalism. Here, we refine this method by correcting its bias regarding skewed distributions, and employ two other independent causal discovery methods based on nonparametric regression and on information theory, respectively. Contrary to previous work, all three independent methods strongly indicate that generalism drives abundance when applied to datasets on pollinator-hummingbird communities and reef fishes. Furthermore, we find that selection processes are more important than drift processes in structuring multispecies systems when the environment is variable. Our results showcase the power of the computational causal discovery approach to aid ecological research.

Chuliang Song
Chuliang Song

I am a quantitative ecologist driven by the curiosity of how biodiversity is generated and maintained.

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