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Accessibility maps as a tool to predict sampling bias in historical biodiversity occurrence records

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Historical biodiversity occurrence records are often discarded in spatial modeling analyses because of a lack of a method to quantify their sampling bias. Here we propose a new approach for predicting sampling bias in historical written records of occurrence, using a South African example as proof of concept. We modelled and mapped accessibility of the study area as the mean of proximity to freshwater and European settlements. We tested the model's ability to predict the location of historical biodiversity records from a dataset of 2612 large mammal occurrence records collected from historical written sources in South Africa in the period 1497–1920. We investigated temporal, spatial and environmental biases in these historical records and examined if the model prediction and occurrence dataset share similar environmental bias. We find a good agreement between the accessibility map and the distribution of sampling effort in the early historical period in South Africa. Environmental biases in the empirical data are identified, showing a preference for lower maximum temperature of the warmest month, higher mean monthly precipitation, higher net primary productivity and less arid biomes than expected by a uniform use of the study area. We find that the model prediction shares similar environmental bias as the empirical data. Accessibility maps, built with very simple statistical rules and in the absence of empirical data, can thus predict the spatial and environmental biases observed in historical biodiversity occurrence records. We recommend that this approach be used as a tool to estimate sampling bias in small datasets of occurrence and to improve the use of these data in spatial analyses in ecological and conservation studies.
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Keywords: South Africa; citizen-science; environmental bias; historical ecology; mammals; occurrence records

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2019

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