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Accounting for spatial pattern when modeling organism-environment interactions

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Statistical models of environment-abundance relationships may be influenced by spatial autocorrelation in abundance, environmental variables, or both. Failure to account for spatial autocorrelation can lead to incorrect conclusions regarding both the absolute and relative importance of environmental variables as determinants of abundance. We consider several classes of statistical models that are appropriate for modeling environment-abundance relationships in the presence of spatial autocorrelation, and apply these to three case studies: 1) abundance of voles in relation to habitat characteristics; 2) a plant competition experiment; and 3) abundance of Orbatid mites along environmental gradients. We find that when spatial pattern is accounted for in the modeling process, conclusions about environmental control over abundance can change dramatically. We conclude with five lessons: 1) spatial models are easy to calculate with several of the most common statistical packages; 2) results from spatially-structured models may point to conclusions radically different from those suggested by a spatially independent model; 3) not all spatial autocorrelation in abundances results from spatial population dynamics; it may also result from abundance associations with environmental variables not included in the model; 4) the different spatial models do have different mechanistic interpretations in terms of ecological processes – thus ecological model selection should take primacy over statistical model selection; 5) the conclusions of the different spatial models are typically fairly similar – making any correction is more important than quibbling about which correction to make.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2002

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