• Beta diversity;
  • biodiversity;
  • dissimilarity;
  • ecological gradient;
  • scale dependence;
  • Simpson similarity;
  • Sørensen similarity;
  • species turnover


Aim  The relationship between geographic distance and similarity in species composition is regularly used as a measure of species turnover and beta diversity. Distance–decay analyses are applied, cited and compared despite the variable extent, and different grain sizes of records (e.g. plots, islands, states) are regularly used within such analyses. Currently, differences among distance–decay relationships that cover different grain sizes and extents are attributed to ecological processes that are suspected to operate differently over varying extents and grain sizes. We assess whether the implicit assumption that the distance–decay relation is independent of grain size and study extent is valid, or whether sampling design could be the underlying cause for observed differences.

Location  An artificial one-dimensional ‘landscape’.

Methods  The distance–decay relationship was quantified in simulated communities. Grain and study extent were varied systematically. In each sampled data set the linear relation of Simpson and Sørensen similarity to geographic distance (on both log-transformed and original scales) between 100 even-sized equidistant plots was assessed using linear regression and generalized linear regression with a log-link function. Regressions were applied either including or removing zero similarities from the data.

Results  Both the slope (measuring turnover) and the goodness of fit measure r2 (quantifying the influence of space on species composition) of the distance–decay relationship were strongly influenced by grain and study extent. Approaches that are able to cope with zero similarity values of large distance comparisons were less dependent on grain and extent.

Main conclusions  Reported differences between landscapes detected by current distance–decay measures cannot be explicitly traced back to ecological scale-specific processes. Instead, they can largely be attributed to sampling design and are highly sensitive to grain size and study extent. More appropriate approaches for the study of distance–decay and the understanding of scale-specific processes are required.