A conceptual guide to measuring species diversity

Michael Roswell, Jonathan Dushoff, Rachael Winfree

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three metrics of species diversity – species richness, the Shannon index and the Simpson index – are still widely used in ecology, despite decades of valid critiques leveled against them. Developing a robust diversity metric has been challenging because, unlike many variables ecologists measure, the diversity of a community often cannot be estimated in an unbiased way based on a random sample from that community. Over the past decade, ecologists have begun to incorporate two important tools for estimating diversity: coverage and Hill diversity. Coverage is a method for equalizing samples that is, on theoretical grounds, preferable to other commonly used methods such as equal-effort sampling, or rarefying datasets to equal sample size. Hill diversity comprises a spectrum of diversity metrics and is based on three key insights. First, species richness and variants of the Shannon and Simpson indices are all special cases of one general equation. Second, richness, Shannon and Simpson can be expressed on the same scale and in units of species. Third, there is no way to eliminate the effect of relative abundance from estimates of any of these diversity metrics, including species richness. Rather, a researcher must choose the relative sensitivity of the metric towards rare and common species, a concept which we describe as ‘leverage.' In this paper we explain coverage and Hill diversity, provide guidelines for how to use them together to measure species diversity, and demonstrate their use with examples from our own data. We show why researchers will obtain more robust results when they estimate the Hill diversity of equal-coverage samples, rather than using other methods such as equal-effort sampling or traditional sample rarefaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-338
Number of pages18
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Hill numbers
  • coverage
  • rarefaction
  • rarity


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