Building statistical models to analyze species distributions.
Models of the geographic distributions of species have wide application in ecology. But the nonspatial, single-level, regression models that ecologists have often employed do not deal with problems of irregular sampling intensity or spatial dependence, and do not adequately quantify uncertainty. We show here how to build statistical models that can handle these features of spatial prediction and provide richer, more powerful inference about species niche relations, distributions, and the effects of human disturbance. We begin with a familiar generalized linear model and build in additional features, including spatial random effects and hierarchical levels. Since these models are fully specified statistical models, we show that it is possible to add complexity without sacrificing interpretability. This step-by-step approach, together with attached code that implements a simple, spatially explicit, regression model, is structured to facilitate self-teaching. All models are developed in a Bayesian framework. We assess the performance of the models by using them to predict the distributions of two plant species (Proteaceae) from South Africa's Cape Floristic Region. We demonstrate that making distribution models spatially explicit can be essential for accurately characterizing the environmental response of species, predicting their probability of occurrence, and assessing uncertainty in the model results. Adding hierarchical levels to the models has further advantages in allowing human transformation of the landscape to be taken into account, as well as additional features of the sampling process.
Latimer, AM; Wu, S; Gelfand, AE; Silander, JA
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