Post provided by Dr Andrés Baselga
A key property of biodiversity is that it is not evenly distributed around the world. In other words, different sites are usually home to different biological communities. Quantifying the differences among biological communities is a major step towards understanding how and why biodiversity is distributed in the way it is.
The term beta diversity was introduced by R.H. Whittaker in 1960. He defined it as “the extent of change in community composition, or degree of community differentiation, in relation to a complex-gradient of environment, or a pattern of environments”. In his original paper, Whittaker proposed several ways to quantify beta diversity. In its simplest form (which we will call strict sense or multiplicative beta diversity), beta diversity is defined as the ratio between gamma (regional) and alpha (local) diversities (Whittaker, 1960; Jost, 2007). Therefore, it is the effective number of distinct compositional units in the region (Tuomisto, 2010). Essentially, beta diversity quantifies the number of different communities in the region. So it’s clear that beta diversity does not only account for the relationship between local and regional diversity, but also informs about the degree of differentiation among biological communities. This is because alpha and gamma diversities are different if (and only if) the biological communities within the region are different.
It’s easy to demonstrate how beta diversity varies from the minimum to the maximum differentiation of local assemblages in a region. For simplicity, we will quantify biological diversity as species richness (number of species), but it’s important to remember that alpha, beta and gamma diversities can also be defined to account for richness and relative abundances (see Jost, 2007 for a detailed explanation). When local assemblages are all identical (minimum differentiation), alpha diversity equals gamma diversity, and beta diversity equals 1 (figure below).