One of the first successes of neutral ecology was to predict realistically-broad distributions of rare and abundant species. However, it has remained an outstanding theoretical challenge to describe how this distribution of abundances changes with spatial scale, and this gap has hampered attempts to use observed species abundances as a way to quantify what non-neutral processes are needed to fully explain observed patterns. To address this, we introduce a new formulation of spatial neutral biodiversity theory and derive analytical predictions for the way abundance distributions change with scale. For tropical forest data where neutrality has been extensively tested before now, we apply this approach and identify an incompatibility between neutral fits at regional and local scales. We use this approach derive a sharp quantification of what remains to be explained by non-neutral processes at the local scale, setting a quantitative target for more general models for the maintenance of biodiversity.
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