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Comment on Pescott & Jitlal 2020: Failure to account for measurement error undermines their conclusion of a weak impact of nitrogen deposition on plant species richness

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Article number48980
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>12/01/2021
Number of pages11
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Estimation of the impacts of atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition on ecosystems and biodiversity is a research imperative. Analyses of large-scale spatial gradients, where an observed response is correlated with measured or modelled deposition, have been an important source of evidence. A number of problems beset this approach. For example, if responses are spatially aggregated then treating each location as statistically independent can lead to biased confidence intervals and a greater probably of false positive results. Using methods that account for residual spatial autocorrelation, Pescott & Jitlal (2020) re-analysed two large-scale spatial gradient datasets from Britain where modelled N deposition at 5 × 5 km resolution had been previously correlated with species richness in small quadrats. They found that N deposition effects were weaker than previously demonstrated leading them to conclude that “previous estimates of Ndep impacts on richness from space-for-time substitution studies are likely to have been over-estimated”. We use a simulation study to show that their conclusion is unreliable despite them recognising that an influential fraction of the residual spatially structured variation could itself be attributable to N deposition. This arises because the covariate used was modelled N deposition at 5 × 5 km resolution leaving open the possibility that measured or modelled N deposition at finer resolutions could explain more variance in the response. Explicitly treating this as spatially auto-correlated error ignores this possibility and leads directly to their unreliable conclusion. We further demonstrate the plausibility of this scenario by showing that significant variation in N deposition at the 1 km square resolution is indeed averaged at 5 × 5 km resolution. Further analyses are required to explore whether estimation of the size of the N deposition effect on plant species richness and other measures of biodiversity is indeed dependent on the accuracy and hence measurement error of the N deposition covariate. Until then the conclusions of Pescott & Jitlal (2020) should be considered premature.