I have two datasets:

  1. a $1*m$ matrix of "ideal" conditions for $m$ factors
  2. a $n*m$ matrix of $n$ observations (rows) for each of the $m$ factors

I would like to calculate for each observation in the second matrix, how far it is from the "ideal" condition. So the output would be $n$ values that represent "distances" from ideal conditions.

First question, is the Mahalanobis distance appropriate to use here? The $m$ factors are spatial in nature, and are related to each other.

Second question, how do I set this up in R? I have tried a few examples with mahalanobis(), mahalanobis.dist(), and pairwise.mahalnobis(), but I cannot see how these can be used with my example. When I've tried to use my matrices with these functions, I get an error:

Error in solve.default(cov, ...) : 
  Lapack routine dgesv: system is exactly singular: U[8,8] = 0

Which I have come to understand means that one of my matrices is singular and therefore cannot be inverted. I am not entirely sure how to get around this issue, or if it needs to be gotten around at all for my purposes.

I have also read this thread, but it's a bit over my head.

The overall goal of this is to use the results to map out "ideal" habitat ranges for a particular species.

Any help, thoughts, or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!


2 Answers 2


It sounds like a plausible context for a Mahalanobis Distance. You need to be able to specify or estimate a covariance matrix, Sigma, for your m factors. It sounds like your n*m matrix is a sample of data. If it's a reasonable sample for estimating Sigma and n > m so that Sigma will be invertible, you are in business. Example code below.

## make some fake data, akin to your n*m matrix, with n > m
TrueSigma <- matrix(c(10,3,2,1,3,9,2,1,2,2,8,1,1,1,1,7),4,4)
Mu <- 4:1
FakeData <- mvrnorm(n = 5, Mu, TrueSigma)

## specify ideal means, akin to your 1*m matrix
IdealMu <- c(3,3,2,0)

## calculate Mahalanobis distance for row 3
SigmaInv <- solve( var(FakeData) )
(FakeData[3,]-IdealMu) %*% SigmaInv %*% (FakeData[3,]-IdealMu)

What this means is that there is little to no variation for one of your variables. My recommendation would be - use an if-statement.

If length(unique(df$value))>1, then do the mahalanobis_dance, else do something else.

Hope that makes sense.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.