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Explaining local-scale species distributions: relative contributions of spatial autocorrelation and landscape heterogeneity for an avian assemblage

March 19, 2013

Understanding interactions between mobile species distributions and landcover characteristics remains an outstanding challenge in ecology. Multiple factors could explain species distributions including endogenous evolutionary traits leading to conspecific clustering and endogenous habitat features that support life history requirements. Birds are a useful taxon for examining hypotheses about the relative importance of these factors among species in a community. We developed a hierarchical Bayes approach to model the relationships between bird species occupancy and local landcover variables accounting for spatial autocorrelation, species similarities, and partial observability. We fit alternative occupancy models to detections of 90 bird species observed during repeat visits to 316 point-counts forming a 400-m grid throughout the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Maryland, USA. Models with landcover variables performed significantly better than our autologistic and null models, supporting the hypothesis that local landcover heterogeneity is important as an exogenous driver for species distributions. Conspecific clustering alone was a comparatively poor descriptor of local community composition, but there was evidence for spatial autocorrelation in all species. Considerable uncertainty remains whether landcover combined with spatial autocorrelation is most parsimonious for describing bird species distributions at a local scale. Spatial structuring may be weaker at intermediate scales within which dispersal is less frequent, information flows are localized, and landcover types become spatially diversified and therefore exhibit little aggregation. Examining such hypotheses across species assemblages contributes to our understanding of community-level associations with conspecifics and landscape composition.