Over the last two decades spatial point pattern analysis (SPPA) has become increasingly popular in ecological research. To direct future work in this area we review studies using SPPA techniques in ecology and related disciplines. We first summarize the key elements of SPPA in ecology (i.e. data types, summary statistics and their estimation, null models, comparison of data and models, and consideration of heterogeneity); second, we review how ecologists have used these key elements; and finally, we identify practical difficulties that are still commonly encountered and point to new methods that allow current key questions in ecology to be effectively addressed.
Our review of 308 articles published over the period 1992–2012 reveals that a standard canon of SPPA techniques in ecology has been largely identified and that most of the earlier technical issues that occupied ecologists, such as edge correction, have been solved. However, the majority of studies underused the methodological potential offered by modern SPPA. More advanced techniques of SPPA offer the potential to address a variety of highly relevant ecological questions. For example, inhomogeneous summary statistics can quantify the impact of heterogeneous environments, mark correlation functions can include trait and phylogenetic information in the analysis of multivariate spatial patterns, and more refined point process models can be used to realistically characterize the structure of a wide range of patterns. Additionally, recent advances in fitting spatially-explicit simulation models of community dynamics to point pattern summary statistics hold the promise for solving the longstanding problem of linking pattern to process. All these newer developments allow ecologists to keep up with the increasing availability of spatial data sets provided by newer technologies, which allow point patterns and environmental variables to be mapped over large spatial extents at increasingly higher image resolutions.