Inferences about nested subsets structure when not all species are detected


  • Emmanuelle Cam,

  • James D. Nichols,

  • James E. Hines,

  • John R. Sauer

E. Cam, J. D. Nichols, J. E. Hines and J. R. Sauer, U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Div., Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 11510 American Holly Drive, Laurel, MD 20708-4019, USA (present address of EC: Laboratoire de Biologie, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, F-29285 Brest Cedex, France []).


Comparisons of species composition among isolated ecological communities of different size have often provided evidence that the species in communities with lower species richness form nested subsets of the species in larger communities. In the vast majority of studies, the question of nested subsets has been addressed using information on presence-absence, where a “0” is interpreted as the absence of a given species from a given location. Most of the methodological discussion in earlier studies investigating nestedness concerns the approach to generation of model-based matrices corresponding to the null hypothesis of a nonnested pattern. However, it is most likely that in many situations investigators cannot detect all the species present in the location sampled. The possibility that zeros in incidence matrices reflect nondetection rather than absence of species has not been considered in studies addressing nested subsets, even though the position of zeros in these matrices forms the basis of earlier inference methods. These sampling artifacts are likely to lead to erroneous conclusions about both variation over space in species richness, and the degree of similarity of the various locations. Here we propose an approach to investigation of nestedness, based on statistical inference methods explicitly incorporating species detection probability, that take into account the probabilistic nature of the sampling process. We use presence-absence data collected under Pollock's robust capture-recapture design, and resort to an estimator of species richness originally developed for closed populations to assess the proportion of species shared by different locations. We develop testable predictions corresponding to the null hypothesis of a nonnested pattern, and an alternative hypothesis of perfect nestedness. We also present an index for assessing the degree of nestedness of a system of ecological communities. We illustrate our approach using avian data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey collected in Florida Keys.