Spatial autoregressive models for statistical inference from ecological data

Jay M. Ver Hoef, Erin E. Peterson, Mevin B. Hooten, Ephraim M. Hanks, Marie Josèe Fortin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Ecological data often exhibit spatial pattern, which can be modeled as autocorrelation. Conditional autoregressive (CAR) and simultaneous autoregressive (SAR) models are network-based models (also known as graphical models) specifically designed to model spatially autocorrelated data based on neighborhood relationships. We identify and discuss six different types of practical ecological inference using CAR and SAR models, including: (1) model selection, (2) spatial regression, (3) estimation of autocorrelation, (4) estimation of other connectivity parameters, (5) spatial prediction, and (6) spatial smoothing. We compare CAR and SAR models, showing their development and connection to partial correlations. Special cases, such as the intrinsic autoregressive model (IAR), are described. Conditional autoregressive and SAR models depend on weight matrices, whose practical development uses neighborhood definition and row-standardization. Weight matrices can also include ecological covariates and connectivity structures, which we emphasize, but have been rarely used. Trends in harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in southeastern Alaska from 463 polygons, some with missing data, are used to illustrate the six inference types. We develop a variety of weight matrices and CAR and SAR spatial regression models are fit using maximum likelihood and Bayesian methods. Profile likelihood graphs illustrate inference for covariance parameters. The same data set is used for both prediction and smoothing, and the relative merits of each are discussed. We show the nonstationary variances and correlations of a CAR model and demonstrate the effect of row-standardization. We include several take-home messages for CAR and SAR models, including (1) choosing between CAR and IAR models, (2) modeling ecological effects in the covariance matrix, (3) the appeal of spatial smoothing, and (4) how to handle isolated neighbors. We highlight several reasons why ecologists will want to make use of autoregressive models, both directly and in hierarchical models, and not only in explicit spatial settings, but also for more general connectivity models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-59
Number of pages24
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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