, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 153-160

Random sampling does not exclude spatial dependence: The importance of neutral models for ecological hypothesis testing

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Abstract

Lájer (2007) notes that, to investigate phytosociological and ecological relationships, many authors apply traditional inferential tests to sets of relevés obtained by non-random methods. Unfortunately, this procedure does not provide reliable support for hypothesis testing because non-random sampling violates the assumptions of independence required by many parametric inferential tests. Instead, a random sampling scheme is recommended. Nonetheless, random sampling will not eliminate spatial autocorrelation. For instance, a classical law of geography holds that everything in a piece of (biotic) space is interrelated, but near objects are more related than distant ones. Because most ecological processes that shape community structure and species coexistence are spatially explicit, spatial autocorrelation is a vital part of almost all ecological data. This means that, independently from the underlying sampling design, ecological data are generally spatially autocorrelated, violating the assumption of independence that is generally required by traditional inferential tests. To overcome this drawback, randomization tests may be used. Such tests evaluate statistical significance based on empirical distributions generated from the sample and do not necessarily require data independence. However, as concerns hypothesis testing, randomization tests are not the universal remedy for ecologists, because the choice of inadequate null models can have significant effects on the ecological hypotheses tested. In this paper, I emphasize the need of developing null models for which the statistical assumptions match the underlying biological mechanisms.