Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Omitted variable bias in studies of plant interactions.

Abstract

Models of plant-plant interactions underpin our understanding of species coexistence, invasive plant impacts, and plant community responses to climate change. In recent studies, models of competitive interactions failed predictive tests, thereby casting doubt on results of many past studies. We believe these model failures owe at least partly to heterogeneity in unmodeled factors (e.g., nutrients, soil pathogens) that affect both target plants and neighboring competitors. Such heterogeneity is ubiquitous, and models that do not account for it will suffer omitted variable bias. We used instrumental variables analysis to test for and correct omitted variable bias in studies that followed common protocols for measuring plant competition. In an observational study, omitted variables caused competition to seem like mutualism. In a quasi-experiment that partially controlled competitor abundances with seeding, omitted variables caused competition to seem about 35% weaker than it really was, even though the experiment occurred in an abandoned agricultural field where environmental heterogeneity was expected to be relatively low. Despite decades of research, consistently accurate estimates of competitive interactions remain elusive. The most foolproof way around this problem is true experiments that avoid omitted variable bias by completely controlling competitor abundances, but such experiments are rare.