Importance of Spatial Autocorrelation In Modeling Bird Distributions at a Continental Scale

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Spatial autocorrelation in species’ distributions has been recognized as inflating the probability of a type I error in hypotheses tests, causing biases in variable selection, and violating the assumption of independence of error terms in models such as correlation or regression. However, it remains unclear whether these problems occur at all spatial resolutions and extents, and under which conditions spatially explicit modeling techniques are superior. Our goal was to determine whether spatial models were superior at large extents and across many different species. In addition, we investigated the importance of purely spatial effects in distribution patterns relative to the variation that could be explained through environmental conditions. We studied distribution patterns of 108 bird species in the conterminous United States using ten years of data from the Breeding Bird Survey. We compared the performance of spatially explicit regression models with non-spatial regression models using Akaike’s information criterion. In addition, we partitioned the variance in species distributions into an environmental, a pure spatial and a shared component. The spatially-explicit conditional autoregressive regression models strongly outperformed the ordinary least squares regression models. In addition, partialling out the spatial component underlying the species’ distributions showed that an average of 17% of the explained variation could be attributed to purely spatial effects independent of the spatial autocorrelation induced by the underlying environmental variables. We concluded that location in the range and neighborhood play an important role in the distribution of species. Spatially explicit models are expected to yield better predictions especially for mobile species such as birds, even in coarse-grained models with a large extent.