Climate envelope models are widely used to describe potential future distribution of species under different climate change scenarios. It is broadly recognized that there are both strengths and limitations to using climate envelope models and that outcomes are sensitive to initial assumptions, inputs, and modeling methods Selection of predictor variables, a central step in modeling, is one of the areas where different techniques can yield varying results. Selection of climate variables to use as predictors is often done using statistical approaches that develop correlations between occurrences and climate data. These approaches have received criticism in that they rely on the statistical properties of the data rather than directly incorporating biological information about species responses to temperature and precipitation. We evaluated and compared models and prediction maps for 15 threatened or endangered species in Florida based on two variable selection techniques: expert opinion and a statistical method. We compared model performance between these two approaches for contemporary predictions, and the spatial correlation, spatial overlap and area predicted for contemporary and future climate predictions. In general, experts identified more variables as being important than the statistical method and there was low overlap in the variable sets (<40%) between the two methods Despite these differences in variable sets (expert versus statistical), models had high performance metrics (>0.9 for area under the curve (AUC) and >0.7 for true skill statistic (TSS). Spatial overlap, which compares the spatial configuration between maps constructed using the different variable selection techniques, was only moderate overall (about 60%), with a great deal of variability across species. Difference in spatial overlap was even greater under future climate projections, indicating additional divergence of model outputs from different variable selection techniques. Our work is in agreement with other studies which have found that for broad-scale species distribution modeling, using statistical methods of variable selection is a useful first step, especially when there is a need to model a large number of species or expert knowledge of the species is limited. Expert input can then be used to refine models that seem unrealistic or for species that experts believe are particularly sensitive to change. It also emphasizes the importance of using multiple models to reduce uncertainty and improve map outputs for conservation planning. Where outputs overlap or show the same direction of change there is greater certainty in the predictions. Areas of disagreement can be used for learning by asking why the models do not agree, and may highlight areas where additional on-the-ground data collection could improve the models.
Reference: Brandt L.A., Benscoter A.M., Harvey R., Speroterra C., Bucklin D., Romañach S.S., Watling J.I. & Mazzotti F.J. (2017) Comparison of climate envelope models developed using expert-selected variables versus statistical selection. Ecological Modelling, 345:10-20 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2016.11.016