A new non-parametric method for analyzing replicated point patterns in ecology

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Abstract

Most ecological studies that involve point pattern analyses are based on a single plot, which prevent the separation of the effects of various processes that could act simultaneously, as well as limiting the conclusions that can be extracted from these studies. However, considering the spatial distribution of individuals in several plots as replicates of the same process could help to differentiate its specific effects from those of other confounding processes. Thus, we introduce a new method for analyzing spatial point patterns that are replicated according to a two-factorial design. By summarizing the spatial patterns as K-functions, the proposed method computes the average K-functions for each level of the two factors (i.e. predictors) and for each combination of levels, before estimating the sum of squared deviations from the overall mean K-function. Inferences of the strength of the relationship between the predictors, their interaction, and the spatial structure are made based on a non-parametric bootstrap procedure, which considers the dependency among spatial scales. We illustrate the proposed approach based on an analysis of the effects of altitude (with two levels: low and high) and slope (with two levels: flat and steep slopes) on the spatial pattern of Croton wagneri, a dominant shrub in an Andean dry scrubland. Our method detected a significant effect of the interaction between slope and altitude, which could not have been detected using current point pattern analysis methodology. The prevalence of single-plot analysis in ecological studies may be due to a lack of familiarity with appropriate methods for replicated point patterns, as well as the greater complexity of these methods and the absence of appropriate software. Our approach can be applied to a significant number of ecological questions while maintaining a simple, understandable, and easily reportable methodological framework.

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