One problem, many solutions: simple statistical approaches help unravel the complexity of th eimmune system in an ecological context

D.M. Buehler, M.A. Versteegh, K.D. Matson, B.I. Tieleman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


The immune system is a complex collection of interrelated and overlapping solutions to the problem of disease. To deal with this complexity, researchers have devised multiple ways to measure immune function and to analyze the resulting data. In this way both organisms and researchers employ many tactics to solve a complex problem. One challenge facing ecological immunologists is the question of how these many dimensions of immune function can be synthesized to facilitate meaningful interpretations and conclusions. We tackle this challenge by employing and comparing several statistical methods, which we used to test assumptions about how multiple aspects of immune function are related at different organizational levels. We analyzed three distinct datasets that characterized 1) species, 2) subspecies, and 3) among- and within-individual level differences in the relationships among multiple immune indices. Specifically, we used common principal components analysis (CPCA) and two simpler approaches, pair-wise correlations and correlation circles. We also provide a simple example of how these techniques could be used to analyze data from multiple studies. Our findings lead to several general conclusions. First, relationships among indices of immune function may be consistent among some organizational groups (e.g. months over the annual cycle) but not others (e.g. species); therefore any assumption of consistency requires testing before further analyses. Second, simple statistical techniques used in conjunction with more complex multivariate methods give a clearer and more robust picture of immune function than using complex statistics alone. Moreover, these simpler approaches have potential for analyzing comparable data from multiple studies, especially as the field of ecological immunology moves towards greater methodological standardization.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere18592
Number of pages13
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • phenotypic covariance structure
  • matrix correlation
  • life-history
  • annual-cycle
  • trade-offs
  • greenfinches
  • environments
  • immunology
  • challenge
  • patterns


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