Reinterpreting maximum entropy in ecology: a null hypothesis constrained by ecological mechanism

James P. O’Dwyer, Andrew Rominger, Xiao Xiao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Simplified mechanistic models in ecology have been criticised for the fact that a good fit to data does not imply the mechanism is true: pattern does not equal process. In parallel, the maximum entropy principle (MaxEnt) has been applied in ecology to make predictions constrained by just a handful of state variables, like total abundance or species richness. But an outstanding question remains: what principle tells us which state variables to constrain? Here we attempt to solve both problems simultaneously, by translating a given set of mechanisms into the state variables to be used in MaxEnt, and then using this MaxEnt theory as a null model against which to compare mechanistic predictions. In particular, we identify the sufficient statistics needed to parametrise a given mechanistic model from data and use them as MaxEnt constraints. Our approach isolates exactly what mechanism is telling us over and above the state variables alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)832-841
Number of pages10
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • Macroecology
  • maximum entropy
  • neutral ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Reinterpreting maximum entropy in ecology: a null hypothesis constrained by ecological mechanism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this