Understanding why some species are common and others are rare is a central question in ecology, and is critical for developing conservation strategies under global change. Rare species are typically considered to be more prone to extinction-but the fact they are rare can impede a general understanding of rarity vs. abundance. Here we develop and empirically test a framework to predict species abundances and stability using mechanisms governing population dynamics. Our results demonstrate that coexisting species with similar abundances can be shaped by different mechanisms (specifically, higher growth rates when rare vs. weaker negative density-dependence). Further, these dynamics influence population stability: species with higher intrinsic growth rates but stronger negative density-dependence were more stable and less sensitive to climate variability, regardless of abundance. This suggests that underlying mechanisms governing population dynamics, in addition to population size, may be critical indicators of population stability in an increasingly variable world.