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Effects of species’ ecology on the accuracy of distribution models

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In the face of accelerating biodiversity loss and limited data, species distribution models – which statistically capture and predict species’ occurrences based on environmental correlates – are increasingly used to inform conservation strategies. Additionally, distribution models and their fit provide insights on the broad-scale environmental niche of species. To investigate whether the performance of such models varies with species’ ecological characteristics, we examined distribution models for 1329 bird species in southern and eastern Africa. The models were constructed at two spatial resolutions with both logistic and autologistic regression. Satellite-derived environmental indices served as predictors, and model accuracy was assessed with three metrics: sensitivity, specificity and the area under the curve (AUC) of receiver operating characteristics plots. We then determined the relationship between each measure of accuracy and ten ecological species characteristics using generalised linear models.

Among the ecological traits tested, species’ range size, migratory status, affinity for wetlands and endemism proved most influential on the performance of distribution models. The number of habitat types frequented (habitat tolerance), trophic rank, body mass, preferred habitat structure and association with sub-resolution habitats also showed some effect. In contrast, conservation status made no significant impact. These findings did not differ from one spatial resolution to the next. Our analyses thus provide conservation scientists and resource managers with a rule of thumb that helps distinguish, on the basis of ecological traits, between species whose occurrence is reliably or less reliably predicted by distribution models. Reasonably accurate distribution models should, however, be attainable for most species, because the influence ecological traits bore on model performance was only limited. These results suggest that none of the ecological traits tested provides an obvious correlate for environmental niche breadth or intra-specific niche differentiation.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2007

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