The challenges that spatial context present for synthesizing community ecology across scales

19 September 2018

Patrick, Chris; Yuan, Lester

Accurately characterizing spatial patterns on landscapes is necessary to understand the processes that generate biodiversity, a problem that has applications in ecological theory, conservation planning, ecosystem restoration, and ecosystem management. However, the measurement of biodiversity patterns and the ecological and evolutionary processes that underlie those patterns is highly dependent on the study unit size, boundary placement, and number of observations. These issues, together known as the modifiable areal unit problem, are well known in geography. These factors limit the degree to which results from different metacommunity and macro-ecological studies can be compared to draw new inferences, and yet these types of comparisons are widespread in community ecology. Using aquatic community datasets, we demonstrate that spatial context drives analytical results when landscapes are sub-divided. Next, we present a framework for using resampling and neighborhood smoothing to standardize datasets to allow for inferential comparisons. We then provide examples for how addressing these issues enhances our ability to understand the processes shaping ecological communities at landscape scales and allows for informative meta-analytical synthesis. We conclude by calling for greater recognition of issues derived from the modifiable areal unit problem in community ecology, discuss implications of the problem for interpreting the existing literature, and identify tools and approaches for future research.