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Can patterns of spatial autocorrelation reveal population processes? An analysis with the fire salamander

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Spatial autocorrelation (SAC) is often observed in species distribution data, and can be caused by exogenous, autocorrelated factors determining species distribution, or by endogenous population processes determining clustering such as dispersal. However, it remains debated whether SAC patterns can actually reveal endogenous processes. We reviewed studies measuring dispersal of the salamander Salamandra salamandra, to formulate a priori hypotheses on the scale at which dispersal is expected to determine population distribution. We then tested the hypotheses by analysing SAC in distribution data, and evaluating whether controlling for the effect of environmental variables can reveal endogenous processes. We surveyed 565 streams to obtain species distribution data; we also recorded landscape and microhabitat features known to affect the species. We used multiple approaches to tease apart endogenous and exogenous SAC: the analysis of residuals of logistic regression models considering different environmental variables; the analysis of eigenvectors extracted by several implementations of spatial eigenvector mapping. In capture–mark–recapture studies, 98% of individuals moved 500 m or less. Both species distribution and environmental features were strongly autocorrelated. The residuals of logistic regression relating species to environmental variables were autocorrelated at distances up to 500 m; analyses considering different sets of environmental variables, or assuming non‐linear species habitat relationships, yielded identical results. The results of spatial eigenvector mapping strongly depended on the matrix of distances used. Nevertheless, the eigenvectors of models with best fit were autocorrelated at distances up to 200–500 m. The concordance between multiple approaches suggests that 500 m is the scale at which dispersal connects breeding localities, increasing probability of occurrence. If exogenous variables are correctly identified, the analysis of SAC can provide important insights on endogenous population processes, such as the flow of individuals. SAC analysis can also provide important information for conservation, as the existence of metapopulations or population networks is essential for long term persistence of amphibians.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dipto di Science dell’Ambiente e del Territorio, Univ. degli Studi di Milano- Bicocca, Piazza della Scienza 1, IT-20128 Milano, Italy

Publication date: August 1, 2012

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