The Right Tool for the Job: Using Zeta Diversity to Communicate Uncertainty in Ecological Modelling

Post provided by Mariona Roigé

The Need for Modelling

Green vegetable bug nymph (Nezara viridula). ©John Marris. Lincoln University.

Green vegetable bug nymph (Nezara viridula). ©John Marris. Lincoln University.

Despite how far modelling has taken us in science, the use of models remains controversial. Modelling covers a huge range of common practices, from scaled models of ships to determine the shape that will have the least resistance to water to complex, comprehensive ‘models of everything’. A great example of the latter is the Earth System Model. This model aims to understand the changes in global climate by taking into account the interaction between physical climate, biosphere, the atmosphere and the oceans. Basically, a model of how the Earth works.

The controversy in the use of modelling resides in how accurately the model describes reality and the level of confidence we have in its outputs. The first argument can be a bit counter-intuitive: sometimes, a very simple model can be a great predictor. Actually, the conventional view in ecology is that simple models are more generalisable than complex models, although this view is being challenged. However, the level of confidence, or the level of uncertainty, that we have in the outputs of the model is a crucial point. We need to be able to accurately determine our levels of uncertainty if we want people to trust our models. Continue reading

Capturing the Contribution of Rare and Common Species to Turnover: A Multi-Site Version of Generalised Dissimilarity Modelling

Post provided by Guillaume Latombe and Melodie A. McGeoch

Understanding how biodiversity is distributed and its relationship with the environment is crucial for conservation assessment. It also helps us to predict impacts of environmental changes and design appropriate management plans. Biodiversity across a network of local sites is typically described using three components:

  1. alpha (α) diversity, the average number of species in each specific site of the study area
  2. beta (β) diversity, the difference in species composition between sites
  3. gamma (γ) diversity, the total number of species in the study area.
Two tawny frogmouths, a species native to Australia. ©Marie Henriksen.

Two tawny frogmouths, a species native to Australia. ©Marie Henriksen.

Despite the many insights provided by the combination of alpha, beta and gamma diversity, the ability to describe species turnover has been limited by the fact that they do not consider more than two sites at a time. For more than two sites, the average beta diversity is typically used (multi-site measures have also been developed, but suffer shortcomings, including difficulties of interpretation). This makes it difficult for researchers to determine the likely environmental drivers of species turnover.

We have developed a new method that combines two pre-existing advances, zeta diversity and generalised dissimilarity modelling (both explained below). Our method allows the differences in the contributions of rare versus common species to be modelled to better understand what drives biodiversity responses to environmental gradients. Continue reading