Incorporating ecological principles into statistical models for the prediction of species’ distribution and abundance


B. Stewart-Koster, Australian Rivers Inst. and eWater CRC, Griffith Univ., Nathan, QLD 4111, Australia. E-mail:


Understanding the determinants of species’ distributions and abundances is a central theme in ecology. The development of statistical models to achieve this has a long history and the notion that the model should closely reflect underlying scientific understanding has encouraged ecologists to adopt complex statistical methods as they arise. In this paper we describe a Bayesian hierarchical model that reflects a conceptual ecological model of multi-scaled environmental determinants of riverine fish species’ distributions and abundances. We illustrate this with distribution and abundance data of a small-bodied fish species, the Empire gudgeon Hypseleotris galii, in the Mary and Albert Rivers, Queensland, Australia. Specifically, the model sought to address; 1) the extent that landscape-scale abiotic variables can explain the species’ distribution compared to local-scale variables, 2) how local-scale abiotic variables can explain species’ abundances, and 3) how are these local-scale relationships mediated by landscape-scale variables. Overall, the model accounted for around 60% of variation in the distribution and abundance of H. galii. The findings show that the landscape-scale variables explain much of the distribution of the species; however, there was considerable improvement in estimating the species’ distribution with the addition of local-scale variables. There were many strong relationships between abundance and local-scale abiotic variables; however, several of these relationships were mediated by some of the landscape-scale variables. The extent of spatial autocorrelation in the data was relatively low compared to the distances among sampling reaches. Our findings exemplify that Bayesian statistical modelling provides a robust framework for statistical modelling that reflects our ecological understanding. This allows ecologists to address a range of ecological questions with a single unified probability model rather than a series of disconnected analyses.