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How to understand species’ niches and range dynamics: a demographic research agenda for biogeography

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Range dynamics causes mismatches between a species’ geographical distribution and the set of suitable environments in which population growth is positive (the Hutchinsonian niche). This is because source–sink population dynamics cause species to occupy unsuitable environments, and because environmental change creates non‐equilibrium situations in which species may be absent from suitable environments (due to migration limitation) or present in unsuitable environments that were previously suitable (due to time‐delayed extinction). Because correlative species distribution models do not account for these processes, they are likely to produce biased niche estimates and biased forecasts of future range dynamics. Recently developed dynamic range models (DRMs) overcome this problem: they statistically estimate both range dynamics and the underlying environmental response of demographic rates from species distribution data. This process‐based statistical approach qualitatively advances biogeographical analyses. Yet, the application of DRMs to a broad range of species and study systems requires substantial research efforts in statistical modelling, empirical data collection and ecological theory. Here we review current and potential contributions of these fields to a demographic understanding of niches and range dynamics. Our review serves to formulate a demographic research agenda that entails: (1) advances in incorporating process‐based models of demographic responses and range dynamics into a statistical framework, (2) systematic collection of data on temporal changes in distribution and abundance and on the response of demographic rates to environmental variation, and (3) improved theoretical understanding of the scaling of demographic rates and the dynamics of spatially coupled populations. This demographic research agenda is challenging but necessary for improved comprehension and quantification of niches and range dynamics. It also forms the basis for understanding how niches and range dynamics are shaped by evolutionary dynamics and biotic interactions. Ultimately, the demographic research agenda should lead to deeper integration of biogeography with empirical and theoretical ecology.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Biodiversity, Macroecology and Conservation Biogeography Group, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany 2: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada 3: Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Frankfurt am Main, Germany 4: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Department of Ecological Modelling, Leipzig, Germany 5: Ecoinformatics & Biodiversity Group, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus C, Denmark 6: Institute of Systematic Botany, Zürich, Switzerland 7: Landscape Dynamics, Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland

Publication date: 2012-12-01

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