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Refining spatial neighbourhoods to capture terrain effects

Trisalyn A Nelson1* and Colin Robertson2

Author Affiliations

1 Spatial Pattern Analysis and Research Lab, Department of Geography, University of Victoria, PO Box 3060, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3R4S, Canada

2 Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3C5, Canada

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Ecological Processes 2012, 1:3  doi:10.1186/2192-1709-1-3

Published: 10 February 2012



Spatially explicit ecological research has increased substantially in the past 20 years. Most spatial approaches require the definition of a spatial neighbourhood or the region over which spatial relationships are modelled or assessed. Spatial neighbourhood definitions impact analysis results, and there are benefits in considering neighbourhood definitions that better capture ecological processes. The goal of this research is to present a simple and flexible approach in constraining ecological spatial neighbourhoods using terrain data.


Using watershed boundaries, we can restrict spatial neighbourhoods from combining populations or processes that should be separated by terrain effects. We demonstrate the need for ecological constraints by way of a simulation study and highlight our approach with a case study examining mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae, Coleoptera; Hopkins) infestation hot spots.


Our results demonstrate how failure to constrain neighbourhoods can lead to errors when the spatial signals from unrelated populations are mixed. Also, unconstrained spatial neighbourhoods can unintentionally detect spatial relationships across many scales.


There will be benefits to studies that develop new, ecology-based approaches in defining spatial neighbourhoods that better illuminate ecological function of phenomena under study.

spatial weights; spatial analysis; spatial ecology; hot spots; topography