Niche variability and its consequences for species distribution modeling

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Abstract

When species distribution models (SDMs) are used to predict how a species will respond to environmental change, an important assumption is that the environmental niche of the species is conserved over evolutionary time-scales. Empirical studies conducted at ecological time-scales, however, demonstrate that the niche of some species can vary in response to environmental change. We use habitat and locality data of five species of stream fishes collected across seasons to examine the effects of niche variability on the accuracy of projections from Maxent, a popular SDM. We then compare these predictions to those from an alternate method of creating SDM projections in which a transformation of the environmental data to similar scales is applied. The niche of each species varied to some degree in response to seasonal variation in environmental variables, with most species shifting habitat use in response to changes in canopy cover or flow rate. SDMs constructed from the original environmental data accurately predicted the occurrences of one species across all seasons and a subset of seasons for two other species. A similar result was found for SDMs constructed from the transformed environmental data. However, the transformed SDMs produced better models in ten of the 14 total SDMs, as judged by ratios of mean probability values at known presences to mean probability values at all other locations. Niche variability should be an important consideration when using SDMs to predict future distributions of species because of its prevalence among natural populations. The framework we present here may potentially improve these predictions by accounting for such variability. Copyright:

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Michel, M. J., & Knouft, J. H. (2012). Niche variability and its consequences for species distribution modeling. PLoS ONE, 7(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0044932

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