In a recent Concepts paper in Ecology, Thomson et al. emphasized that assumptions of conventional correlation and regression analyses fundamentally conflict with the ecological concept of limiting factors, and they called for new statistical procedures to address this problem. The analytical issue is that unmeasured factors may be the active limiting constraint and may induce a pattern of unequal variation in the biological response variable through an interaction with the measured factors. Consequently, changes near the maxima, rather than at the center of response distributions, are better estimates of the effects expected when the observed factor is the active limiting constraint. Regression quantiles provide estimates for linear models fit to any part of a response distribution, including near the upper bounds, and require minimal assumptions about the form of the error distribution. Regression quantiles extend the concept of one-sample quantiles to the linear model by solving an optimization problem of minimizing an asymmetric function of absolute errors. Rank-score tests for regression quantiles provide tests of hypotheses and confidence intervals for parameters in linear models with heteroscedastic errors, conditions likely to occur in models of limiting ecological relations. We used selected regression quantiles (e.g., 5th, 10th, ..., 95th) and confidence intervals to test hypotheses that parameters equal zero for estimated changes in average annual acorn biomass due to forest canopy cover of oak (Quercus spp.) and oak species diversity. Regression quantiles also were used to estimate changes in glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) seedling numbers as a function of lily flower numbers, rockiness, and pocket gopher (Thomomys talpoides fossor) activity, data that motivated the query by Thomson et al. for new statistical procedures. Both example applications showed that effects of limiting factors estimated by changes in some upper regression quantile (e.g., 90-95th) were greater than if effects were estimated by changes in the means from standard linear model procedures. Estimating a range of regression quantiles (e.g., 5-95th) provides a comprehensive description of biological response patterns for exploratory and inferential analyses in observational studies of limiting factors, especially when sampling large spatial and temporal scales.
Additional publication details
Estimating effects of limiting factors with regression quantiles