Explaining variation in tropical plant community composition: influence of environmental and spatial data quality

Oecologia. 2008 Mar;155(3):593-604. doi: 10.1007/s00442-007-0923-8. Epub 2007 Dec 7.


The degree to which variation in plant community composition (beta-diversity) is predictable from environmental variation, relative to other spatial processes, is of considerable current interest. We addressed this question in Costa Rican rain forest pteridophytes (1,045 plots, 127 species). We also tested the effect of data quality on the results, which has largely been overlooked in earlier studies. To do so, we compared two alternative spatial models [polynomial vs. principal coordinates of neighbour matrices (PCNM)] and ten alternative environmental models (all available environmental variables vs. four subsets, and including their polynomials vs. not). Of the environmental data types, soil chemistry contributed most to explaining pteridophyte community variation, followed in decreasing order of contribution by topography, soil type and forest structure. Environmentally explained variation increased moderately when polynomials of the environmental variables were included. Spatially explained variation increased substantially when the multi-scale PCNM spatial model was used instead of the traditional, broad-scale polynomial spatial model. The best model combination (PCNM spatial model and full environmental model including polynomials) explained 32% of pteridophyte community variation, after correcting for the number of sampling sites and explanatory variables. Overall evidence for environmental control of beta-diversity was strong, and the main floristic gradients detected were correlated with environmental variation at all scales encompassed by the study (c. 100-2,000 m). Depending on model choice, however, total explained variation differed more than fourfold, and the apparent relative importance of space and environment could be reversed. Therefore, we advocate a broader recognition of the impacts that data quality has on analysis results. A general understanding of the relative contributions of spatial and environmental processes to species distributions and beta-diversity requires that methodological artefacts are separated from real ecological differences.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Costa Rica
  • Ecosystem*
  • Ferns*
  • Geography*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Soil*
  • Tropical Climate


  • Soil