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The dynamics of ecological communities have been described by neutral and niche theories that are now increasingly integrated into unified models. It is known that a critical transition exists between these two states, but the spatial aspect of this transition has not been studied. Our aim is to study the spatial aspect of the transition and propose early warning signals to detect it. We used a stochastic, spatially explicit model that spans a continuum from neutral to niche communities, and is driven by the intensity of hierarchical competition. The transition is indicated by the emergence of a large patch formed by one species that connects the whole area. The properties of this patch can be used as early warning indicators of a critical transition. If competition intensity increases beyond the critical point, our model shows a sudden decrease of the Shannon diversity index and a gentle decline in species richness. The critical point occurs at a very low value of competitive intensity, with the rate of migration from the metacommunity greatly influencing the position of this critical point. As an example, we apply our new method of early warning indicators to the Barro Colorado Tropical forest, which, as expected, appears to be far from a critical transition. Low values of competitive intensity were also reported by previous studies for different high-diversity real communities, suggesting that these communities are located before the critical point. A small increase of competitive interactions could push them across the transition, however, to a state in which diversity is much lower. Thus this new early warnings indicator could be used to monitor high diversity ecosystems that are still undisturbed.
This version incorporates a second round of reviews and an English revision.