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Accounting for spatial autocorrelation in null models of tree species association

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A commonly used null model for species association among forest trees is a well‐mixed community (WMC). A WMC represents a non‐spatial, or spatially implicit, model, in which species form nearest‐neighbor pairs at a rate equal to the product of their community proportions. WMC models assume that the outcome of random dispersal and demographic processes is complete spatial randomness (CSR) in the species’ spatial distributions. Yet, stochastic dispersal processes often lead to spatial autocorrelation (SAC) in tree species densities, giving rise to clustering, segregation, and other nonrandom patterns. Although methods exist to account for SAC in spatially‐explicit models, its impact on non‐spatial models often remains unaccounted for. To investigate the potential for SAC to bias tests based upon non‐spatial models, we developed a spatially‐heterogeneous (SH) modelling approach that incorporates measured levels of SAC. Using the mapped locations of individuals in a tropical tree community, we tested the hypothesis that the identity of nearest‐neighbors represents a random draw from neighborhood species pools. Correlograms of Moran's I confirmed that, for 50 of 51 dominant species, stem density was significantly autocorrelated over distances ranging from 50 to 200 m. The observed patterns of SAC were consistent with dispersal limitation, with most species occurring in distinct patches. For nearly all of the 106 species in the community, the frequency of pairwise association was statistically indistinguishable from that projected by the null models. However, model comparisons revealed that non‐spatial models more strongly underestimated observed species‐pair frequencies, particularly for conspecific pairs. Overall, the CSR models projected more significant facilitative interactions than did SH models, yielding a more liberal test of niche differences. Our results underscore the importance of accounting for stochastic spatial processes in tests of association, regardless of whether spatial or non‐spatial models are employed.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept of Biology, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2012

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