Can environmental constraints determine random patterns of plant species co-occurrence?
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Ecology and Evolution 5(5) : 1088-1099 (2015)
Plant community ecologists use the null model approach to infer assembly processes from observed patterns of species co-occurrence. In about a third of published studies, the null hypothesis of random assembly cannot be rejected. When this occurs, plant ecologists interpret that the observed random pattern is not environmentally constrained - but probably generated by stochastic processes. The null model approach (using the C-score and the discrepancy index) was used to test for random assembly under two simulation algorithms. Logistic regression, distance-based redundancy analysis, and constrained ordination were used to test for environmental determinism (species segregation along environmental gradients or turnover and species aggregation). This article introduces an environmentally determined community of alpine hydrophytes that presents itself as randomly assembled. The pathway through which the random pattern arises in this community is suggested to be as follows: Two simultaneous environmental processes, one leading to species aggregation and the other leading to species segregation, concurrently generate the observed pattern, which results to be neither aggregated nor segregated - but random. A simulation study supports this suggestion. Although apparently simple, the null model approach seems to assume that a single ecological factor prevails or that if several factors decisively influence the community, then they all exert their influence in the same direction, generating either aggregation or segregation. As these assumptions are unlikely to hold in most cases and assembly processes cannot be inferred from random patterns, we would like to propose plant ecologists to investigate specifically the ecological processes responsible for observed random patterns, instead of trying to infer processes from patterns