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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 584:17-30 (2017)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12354

A ‘fuzzy clustering’ approach to conceptual confusion: how to classify natural ecological associations

Dario Fiorentino1,2,*, Roland Pesch3, Carmen-Pia Guenther3, Lars Gutow4, Jan Holstein4, Jennifer Dannheim4, Brigitte Ebbe4, Tim Bildstein3, Winfried Schroeder5, Bastian Schuchardt3, Thomas Brey2,4, Karen Helen Wiltshire1

1Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, Wadden Sea Station Sylt, Hafenstrasse 43, 25992 List, Germany
2Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity at the University Oldenburg, 23129 Oldenburg, Germany
3Bioconsult Schuchardt & Scholle GbR, Reeder-Bischoff-Straße 54, 28757 Bremen, Germany
4Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, Am Handelshafen 12, 27570 Bremerhaven, Germany
5University of Vechta, Chair of Landscape Ecology, PO 1553, 49364 Vechta, Germany
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The concept of the marine ecological community has recently experienced renewed attention, mainly owing to a shift in conservation policies from targeting single and specific objectives (e.g. species) towards more integrated approaches. Despite the value of communities as distinct entities, e.g. for conservation purposes, there is still an ongoing debate on the nature of species associations. They are seen either as communities, cohesive units of non-randomly associated and interacting members, or as assemblages, groups of species that are randomly associated. We investigated such dualism using fuzzy logic applied to a large dataset in the German Bight (southeastern North Sea). Fuzzy logic provides the flexibility needed to describe complex patterns of natural systems. Assigning objects to more than one class, it enables the depiction of transitions, avoiding the rigid division into communities or assemblages. Therefore we identified areas with either structured or random species associations and mapped boundaries between communities or assemblages in this more natural way. We then described the impact of the chosen sampling design on the community identification. Four communities, their core areas and probability of occurrence were identified in the German Bight: AMPHIURA-FILIFORMIS, BATHYPOREIA-TELLINA, GONIADELLA-SPISULA, and PHORONIS. They were assessed by estimating overlap and compactness and supported by analysis of beta-diversity. Overall, 62% of the study area was characterized by high species turnover and instability. These areas are very relevant for conservation issues, but become undetectable when studies choose sampling designs with little information or at small spatial scales.


KEY WORDS: Ecological communities · Benthic macrofauna · Fuzzy classification · Spatial scales


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Cite this article as: Fiorentino D, Pesch R, Guenther CP, Gutow L and others (2017) A ‘fuzzy clustering’ approach to conceptual confusion: how to classify natural ecological associations. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 584:17-30. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12354

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