Spatially explicit modeling in ecology: A review

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The use of spatially explicit models (SEMs) in ecology has grown enormously in the past two decades. One major advancement has been that fine-scale details of landscapes, and of spatially dependent biological processes, such as dispersal and invasion, can now be simulated with great precision, due to improvements in computer technology. Many areas of modeling have shifted toward a focus on capturing these fine-scale details, to improve mechanistic understanding of ecosystems. However, spatially implicit models (SIMs) have played a dominant role in ecology, and arguments have been made that SIMs, which account for the effects of space without specifying spatial positions, have an advantage of being simpler and more broadly applicable, perhaps contributing more to understanding. We address this debate by comparing SEMs and SIMs in examples from the past few decades of modeling research. We argue that, although SIMs have been the dominant approach in the incorporation of space in theoretical ecology, SEMs have unique advantages for addressing pragmatic questions concerning species populations or communities in specific places, because local conditions, such as spatial heterogeneities, organism behaviors, and other contingencies, produce dynamics and patterns that usually cannot be incorporated into simpler SIMs. SEMs are also able to describe mechanisms at the local scale that can create amplifying positive feedbacks at that scale, creating emergent patterns at larger scales, and therefore are important to basic ecological theory. We review the use of SEMs at the level of populations, interacting populations, food webs, and ecosystems and argue that SEMs are not only essential in pragmatic issues, but must play a role in the understanding of causal relationships on landscapes.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Spatially explicit modeling in ecology: A review
Series title Ecosystems
DOI 10.1007/s10021-016-0066-z
Volume 20
Issue 2
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Wetland and Aquatic Research Center
Description 17 p.
First page 284
Last page 300
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