What we use is not what we know: environmental predictors in plant distribution models

Heidi K. Mod, Daniel Scherrer, Miska Luoto, Antoine Guisan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Aims

The choice of environmental predictor variables in correlative models of plant species distributions (hereafter SDMs) is crucial to ensure predictive accuracy and model realism, as highlighted in multiple earlier studies. Because variable selection is directly related to a model's capacity to capture important species' environmental requirements, one would expect an explicit prior consideration of all ecophysiologically meaningful variables. For plants, these include temperature, water, soil nutrients, light, and in some cases, disturbances and biotic interactions. However, the set of predictors used in published correlative plant SDM studies varies considerably. No comprehensive review exists of what environmental predictors are meaningful, available (or missing) and used in practice to predict plant distributions. Contributing to answer these questions is the aim of this review.

Methods

We carried out an extensive, systematic review of recently published plant SDM studies (years 2010–2015; n = 200) to determine the predictors used (and not used) in the models. We additionally conducted an in-depth review of SDM studies in selected journals to identify temporal trends in the use of predictors (years 2000–2015; n = 40).

Results

A large majority of plant SDM studies neglected several ecophysiologically meaningful environmental variables, and the number of relevant predictors used in models has stagnated or even declined over the last 15 yr.

Conclusions

Neglecting ecophysiologically meaningful predictors can result in incomplete niche quantification and can thus limit the predictive power of plant SDMs. Some of these missing predictors are already available spatially or may soon become available (e.g. soil moisture). However, others are not yet easily obtainable across whole study extents (e.g. soil pH and nutrients), and their development should receive increased attention. We conclude that more effort should be made to build ecologically more sound plant SDMs. This requires a more thorough rationale for the choice of environmental predictors needed to meet the study goal, and the development of missing ones. The latter calls for increased collaborative effort between ecological and geo-environmental sciences.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Vegetation Science
Volume27
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)1308-1322
Number of pages15
ISSN1100-9233
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 1171 Geosciences
  • 1172 Environmental sciences

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