A post over at the Phased blog (http://www.nasw.org/users/mslong/) highlights a recent paper in PLoS One by Robert Warren et al. Similar results were obtained in a 2007 Ecology Letters paper by Nekola and Brown, who showed that abundance distributions found in ecology are similar to those found for scientific citations, Eastern North American precipitation, among other things. A similar argument was made by Nee et al. in 1991 (in the journal PRSL-B). The author of the blog appears to agree with the outcome of the Warren et al. study.

I tend to disagree.

In the field of graphs/networks, many networks (social, sexual intercourse among humans, etc.) are found to have similar statistical properties to those of ecological networks (food webs, interactions among mutualists, etc.). However, just because these networks have similar statistical properties does not mean that the statistical properties of ecological networks have no biological meaning.

They make the argument that the common SAD fit may be an artifact of large data sets alone. However, I don’t see any explanation of why they think large data sets is a valid explanation of SADs. Surely SAD’s are fit to varying sizes of datasets. The problem with small datasets is lack of statistical power to detect a particular pattern, but surely you can get a fit for a particular SAD to a small dataset.

There are ecological mechanistic theories behind different SAD models. They argue that because very similar SADs are found in ecological and non-ecological datasets alike one option is that a universal mechanism structures ecological and non-ecological data (with the mechanism unknown in both). Why can’t the same SAD pattern be generated by different mechanisms?

Are Warren et al, Nekola, and Nee right in questioning the utility of SADs? Questioning our theories and ideas only makes the theories better in the end by weeding out shortcomings, etc.

Warren, R., Skelly, D., Schmitz, O., & Bradford, M. (2011). Universal Ecological Patterns in College Basketball Communities PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017342