The carrying capacity for species richness

David Storch, Jordan G. Okie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


The idea that the number of species within an area is limited by a specific capacity of that area to host species is old yet controversial. Here, we show that the concept of carrying capacity for species richness can be as useful as the analogous concept in population biology. Many lines of empirical evidence indicate the existence of limits of species richness, at least at large spatial and phylogenetic scales. However, available evidence does not support the idea of diversity limits based on limited niche space; instead, carrying capacity should be understood as a stable equilibrium of biodiversity dynamics driven by diversity-dependent processes of extinction, speciation and/or colonization. We argue that such stable equilibria exist even if not all resources are used and if increasing species richness increases the ability of a community to use resources. Evaluating the various theoretical approaches to modelling diversity dynamics, we conclude that a fruitful approach for macroecology and biodiversity science is to develop theory that assumes that the key mechanism leading to stable diversity equilibria is the negative diversity dependence of per-species extinction rates, driven by the fact that population sizes of species must decrease with an increasing number of species owing to limited energy availability. The recently proposed equilibrium theory of biodiversity dynamics is an example of such a theory, which predicts that equilibrium species richness (i.e., carrying capacity) is determined by the interplay of the total amount of available resources, the ability of communities to use those resources, environmental stability that affects extinction rates, and the factors that affect speciation and colonization rates. We argue that the diversity equilibria resulting from these biodiversity dynamics are first-order drivers of large-scale biodiversity patterns, such as the latitudinal diversity gradient.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1519-1532
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019


  • biodiversity equilibria
  • biogeography
  • diversity dynamics
  • ecological limits
  • extinction
  • latitudinal diversity gradient
  • macroecology
  • speciation
  • species richness patterns
  • species–energy relationship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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