Using neutral landscapes to identify patterns of aggregation across resource points


  • Jill Lancaster

J. Lancaster (, Inst. of Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Edinburgh, Ashworth Labs, West Mains Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3JT, U.K.


Many organisms are aggregated within resource patches and aggregated spatially across landscapes with multiple resources. Such patchy distributions underpin models of population regulation and species coexistence, so ecologists require methods to analyse spatially-explicit data of resource distribution and use. I describe a method for analysing maps of resources and testing hypotheses about how resource distribution influences the distribution of organisms, where resource patches can be described as points in a landscape and the number of organisms on each resource point is known. Using a mark correlation function and the linearised form of Ripley's K-function, this version of marked point pattern analysis can characterise and test hypotheses about the spatial distribution of organisms (marks) on resource patches (points). The method extends a version of point pattern analysis that has wide ecological applicability, it can describe patterns over a range of scales, and can detect mixed patterns. Statistically, Monte Carlo permutations are used to estimate the difference between the observed and expected values of the mark correlation function. Hypothesis testing employs a flexible neutral landscape approach in which spatial characteristics of point patterns are preserved to some extent, and marks are randomised across points. I describe the steps required to identify the appropriate neutral landscape and apply the analysis. Simulated data sets illustrate how the choice of neutral landscape can influence ecological interpretations, and how this spatially-explicit method and traditional dispersion indices can yield different interpretations. Interpretations may be general or context-sensitive, depending on information available about the underlying point pattern and the neutral landscape. An empirical example of caterpillars exploiting food plants illustrates how this technique might be used to test hypotheses about adult oviposition and larval dispersal. This approach can increase the value of survey data, by making it possible to quantify the distribution of resource points in the landscape and the pattern of resource use by species.