Spatial Variation as a Tool for Inferring Temporal Variation and Diagnosing Types of Mechanisms in Ecosystems
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Ecological processes, like the rise and fall of populations, leave an imprint of their dynamics as a pattern in space. Mining this spatial record for insight into temporal change underlies many applications, including using spatial snapshots to infer trends in communities, rates of species spread across boundaries, likelihood of chaotic dynamics, and proximity to regime shifts. However, these approaches rely on an inherent but undefined link between spatial and temporal variation. We present a quantitative link between a variable's spatial and temporal variation based on established variance-partitioning techniques, and test it for predictive and diagnostic applications. A strong link existed between spatial and regional temporal variation (estimated as Coefficients of Variation or CV's) in 136 variables from three aquatic ecosystems. This association suggests a basis for substituting one for the other, either quantitatively or qualitatively, when long time series are lacking. We further show that weak substitution of temporal for spatial CV results from distortion by specific spatiotemporal patterns (e.g., inter-patch synchrony). Where spatial and temporal CV's do not match, we pinpoint the spatiotemporal causes of deviation in the dynamics of variables and suggest ways that may control for them. In turn, we demonstrate the use of this framework for describing spatiotemporal patterns in multiple ecosystem variables and attributing them to types of mechanisms. Linking spatial and temporal variability makes quantitative the hitherto inexact practice of space-for-time substitution and may thus point to new opportunities for navigating the complex variation of ecosystems.