Niche differentiation has been proposed as an explanation for rarity in species assemblages. To test this hypothesis requires quantifying the ecological similarity of species. This similarity can potentially be estimated by using phylogenetic relatedness. In this study, we predicted that if niche differentiation does explain the co-occurrence of rare and common species, then rare species should contribute greatly to the overall community phylogenetic diversity (PD), abundance will have phylogenetic signal, and common and rare species will be phylogenetically dissimilar. We tested these predictions by developing a novel method that integrates species rank abundance distributions with phylogenetic trees and trend analyses, to examine the relative contribution of individual species to the overall community PD. We then supplement this approach with analyses of phylogenetic signal in abundances and measures of phylogenetic similarity within and between rare and common species groups. We applied this analytical approach to 15 long-term temperate and tropical forest dynamics plots from around the world. We show that the niche differentiation hypothesis is supported in six of the nine gap-dominated forests but is rejected in the six disturbance-dominated and three gap-dominated forests. We also show that the three metrics utilized in this study each provide unique but corroborating information regarding the phylogenetic distribution of rarity in communities.
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