Rapacciuolo G, Roy DB, Gillings S, Fox R, Walker K, Purvis A

Conservation planners often wish to predict how species distributions will change in response to environmental changes. Species distribution models (SDMs) which identify statistical correlations between species presence/absence and various land cover and climate explanatory variables are increasingly used to generate such predictions. However, it is now widely acknowledged that predictions from SDMs are subject to uncertainties stemming from several limitations and over-simplistic assumptions. Using data on the recent range changes of British vascular plants, birds, and butterflies, we find that SDMs based on past climatic associations provided good first approximations of their more recent distributions, due to their accuracy to predict large areas retained by species. However, SDMs are unable to consistently predict areas of expansion or decline between time periods indicating that they do not capture relavant predictors of change. We strongly emphasize the need for caution when using SDMs to predict shifts in species distributions: high explanatory power on temporally-independent records – as assessed using widespread metrics – need not indicate a model’s ability to predict the future.

PLoS ONE 7: e40212

Keywords: species distribution models, climate change, birds, butterflies, plants, range shifts, temporal validation