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Static species distribution models in dynamically changing systems: how good can predictions really be?

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It is widely acknowledged that species respond to climate change by range shifts. Robust predictions of such changes in species’ distributions are pivotal for conservation planning and policy making, and are thus major challenges in ecological research. Statistical species distribution models (SDMs) have been widely applied in this context, though they remain subject to criticism as they implicitly assume equilibrium, and incorporate neither dispersal, demographic processes nor biotic interactions explicitly. In this study, the effects of transient dynamics and ecological properties and processes on the prediction accuracy of SDMs for climate change projections were tested. A spatially explicit multi-species dynamic population model was built, incorporating species-specific and interspecific ecological processes, environmental stochasticity and climate change. Species distributions were sampled in different scenarios, and SDMs were estimated by applying generalised linear models (GLMs) and boosted regression trees (BRTs). Resulting model performances were related to prevailing ecological processes and temporal dynamics.

SDM performance varied for different range dynamics. Prediction accuracies decreased when abrupt range shifts occurred as species were outpaced by the rate of climate change, and increased again when a new equilibrium situation was realised. When ranges contracted, prediction accuracies increased as the absences were predicted well. Far-dispersing species were faster in tracking climate change, and were predicted more accurately by SDMs than short-dispersing species. BRTs mostly outperformed GLMs. The presence of a predator, and the inclusion of its incidence as an environmental predictor, made BRTs and GLMs perform similarly.

Results are discussed in light of other studies dealing with effects of ecological traits and processes on SDM performance. Perspectives are given on further advancements of SDMs and for possible interfaces with more mechanistic approaches in order to improve predictions under environmental change.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2009

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