Stochastic and deterministic processes together determine alpine meadow plant community composition on the Tibetan Plateau
1. The mechanisms that structure biological communities hold the key to understanding ecosystem functioning and the maintenance of biodiversity. Patterns of species abundances have been proposed as a means of differentiation between niche-based and neutral processes, but abundance information alone cannot provide unequivocal discrimination. 2. We combined species niche information and species' relative abundances to test the effects of two opposing structuring mechanisms (environmental filtering and niche complementarity) on species' relative abundances in French lacustrine fish communities. The test involved a novel method comparing the abundance-weighted niche overlap within communities against that expected when relative abundances were randomized among species within the community. 3. Observed overlap was consistently significantly lower than expected at random for two (swimming ability and trophic status) of four primary niche axes across lakes of differing physical environments. Thus, for these niche axes, pairs of abundant species tended to have relatively low niche overlap, while rare species tended to have relatively high niche overlap with abundant species. 4. This suggests that niche complementarity may have acted to enhance ecosystem function and that it is important for species coexistence in these fish communities. The method used may be easily applied to any sort of biological community and thus may have considerable potential for determining the generality of niche complementarity effects on community structure.