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  1. Interactions between neighbouring plants drive population and community dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems. Understanding these interactions is critical for both fundamental and applied ecology. Spatial approaches to model neighbour interactions are necessary, as interaction strength depends on the distance between neighbouring plants. Recent Bayesian advancements, including the Hamiltonian Monte Carlo algorithm, offer the flexibility and speed to fit models of spatially explicit neighbour interactions. We present a guide for parameterizing these models in the Stan programming language and demonstrate how Bayesian computation can assist ecological inference on plant–plant interactions.

  2. Modelling plant neighbour interactions presents several challenges for ecological modelling. First, nonlinear models for distance decay can be prone to identifiability problems, resulting in lack of model convergence. Second, the pairwise data structure of plant–plant interaction matrices often leads to large matrices that demand high computational power. Third, hierarchical structure in plant–plant interaction data is ubiquitous, including repeated measurements within field plots, species and individuals. Hierarchical terms (e.g. ‘random effects’) can result in model convergence problems caused by correlations between coefficients. We explore modelling solutions for these challenges with examples representing spatial data on plant demographic rates: growth, survival and recruitment.

  3. We show that ragged matrices reduce computational challenges inherent to pairwise matrices, resulting in higher efficiency across data types. We also demonstrate how metrics for model convergence, including divergent transitions and effective sample size, can help diagnose problems that result from complex nonlinear structures. Finally, we explore when to use different model structures for hierarchical terms, including centred and non-centred parameterizations. We provide reproducible examples written in Stan to enable ecologists to fit and troubleshoot a broad range of neighbourhood interaction models.

  4. Spatially explicit models are increasingly central to many ecological questions. Our work illustrates how novel Bayesian tools can provide flexibility, speed and diagnostic capacity for fitting plant neighbour models to large, complex datasets. The methods we demonstrate are applicable to any dataset that includes a response variable and locations of observations, from forest inventory plots to remotely sensed imagery. Further developments in statistical models for neighbour interactions are likely to improve our understanding of plant population and community ecology across systems and scales.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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