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Modelling the occurrence of threatened plant species in taiga landscapes: methodological and ecological perspectives

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Abstract Aim 

Understanding the spatial patterns of species distribution and predicting the occurrence of high biological diversity and rare species are central themes in biogeography and environmental conservation. The aim of this study was to model and scrutinize the relative contributions of climate, topography, geology and land-cover factors to the distributions of threatened vascular plant species in taiga landscapes in northern Finland. Location 

North-east Finland, northern Europe. Methods 

The study was performed using a data set of 28 plant species and environmental variables at a 25-ha resolution. Four different stepwise selection algorithms [Akaike information criterion (AIC), Bayesian information criterion (BIC), adaptive backfitting, cross selection] with generalized additive models (GAMs) were fitted to identify the main environmental correlates for species occurrences. The accuracies of the distribution models were evaluated using fourfold cross-validation based on the area under the curve (AUC) derived from receiver operating characteristic plots. The GAMs were tentatively extrapolated to the whole study area and species occurrence probability maps were produced using GIS techniques. The effect of spatial autocorrelation on the modelling results was also tested by including autocovariate terms in the GAMs. Results 

According to the AUC values, the model performance varied from fair to excellent. The AIC algorithm provided the highest mean performance (mean AUC = 0.889), whereas the lowest mean AUC (0.851) was obtained from BIC. Most of the variation in the distribution of threatened plant species was related to growing degree days, temperature of the coldest month, water balance, cover of mire and mean elevation. In general, climate was the most powerful explanatory variable group, followed by land cover, topography and geology. Inclusion of the autocovariate only slightly improved the performance of the models and had a minor effect on the importance of the environmental variables. Main conclusions 

The results confirm that the landscape-scale distribution patterns of plant species can be modelled well on the basis of environmental parameters. A spatial grid system with several environmental variables derived from remote sensing and GIS data was found to produce useful data sets, which can be employed when predicting species distribution patterns over extensive areas. Landscape-scale maps showing the predicted occurrences of individual or multiple threatened plant species may provide a useful basis for focusing field surveys and allocating conservation efforts.
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Keywords: Conservation biogeography; GAM; GIS; probability map; response curve; selection algorithm; taiga; threatened species

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Finnish Environment Institute, Helsinki, Finland

Publication date: October 1, 2008

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