Biotic interactions in species distribution modelling: ten questions to guide interpretation and avoid false conclusions

Journal article
(Review article)

Publication Details

Author(s): Dormann C, Bobrowski M, Dehling M, Harris D, Hartig F, Lischke H, Moretti M, Pagel J, Pinkert S, Schleuning M, Schmidt S, Sheppard C, Steinbauer M, Zeuss D, Kraan C
Journal: Global Ecology and Biogeography
Publication year: 2018
ISSN: 1466-822X


Aim: Recent studies increasingly use statistical methods to infer biotic interactions from co-
occurrence information at a large spatial scale. However, disentangling biotic interactions from
other factors that can affect co-occurrence patterns at the macroscale is a major challenge.

Approach: We present a set of questions that analysts and reviewers should ask to avoid errone-
ously attributing species association patterns to biotic interactions. Our questions relate to the
appropriateness of data and models, the causality behind a correlative signal, and the problems
associated with static data from dynamic systems. We summarize caveats reported by macroeco-
logical studies of biotic interactions and examine whether conclusions on the presence of biotic
interactions are supported by the modelling approaches used.
Findings: Irrespective of the method used, studies that set out to test for biotic interactions find
statistical associations in species’ co-occurrences. Yet, when compared with our list of questions,
few purported interpretations of such associations as biotic interactions hold up to scrutiny. This
does not dismiss the presence or importance of biotic interactions, but it highlights the risk of too
lenient interpretation of the data. Combining model results with information from experiments and functional traits that are relevant for the biotic interaction of interest might strengthen
Main conclusions: Moving from species- to community-level models, including biotic interactions
among species, is of great importance for process-based understanding and forecasting ecological
responses. We hope that our questions will help to improve these models and facilitate the inter-
pretation of their results. In essence, we conclude that ecologists have to recognize that a species
association pattern in joint species distribution models will be driven not only by real biotic interac-
tions, but also by shared habitat preferences, common migration history, phylogenetic history and
shared response to missing environmental drivers, which specifically need to be discussed and, if
possible, integrated into models.

FAU Authors / FAU Editors

Steinbauer, Manuel Prof. Dr.
Professur für System-Paläobiologie

External institutions
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg
Eidg. Forschungsanstalt für Wald, Schnee und Landschaft WSL
Philipps-Universität Marburg
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Stockholm University / Stockholms universitet
Universität Hamburg
Universität Hohenheim
Universität Koblenz-Landau
Universität Regensburg
University of Canterbury
University of Florida

How to cite

Dormann, C., Bobrowski, M., Dehling, M., Harris, D., Hartig, F., Lischke, H.,... Kraan, C. (2018). Biotic interactions in species distribution modelling: ten questions to guide interpretation and avoid false conclusions. Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Dormann, Carsten, et al. "Biotic interactions in species distribution modelling: ten questions to guide interpretation and avoid false conclusions." Global Ecology and Biogeography (2018).


Last updated on 2018-11-08 at 00:26