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How Useful Are Species Distribution Models for Managing Biodiversity under Future Climates?

Steve J Sinclair, Arthur Rylah Institute, Department of Sustainability and Environment
Matthew D White, Arthur Rylah Institute, Department of Sustainability and Environment
Graeme R Newell, Arthur Rylah Institute, Department of Sustainability and Environment


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Climate change presents unprecedented challenges for biological conservation. Agencies are increasingly looking to modeled projections of species’ distributions under future climates to inform management strategies. As government scientists with a responsibility to communicate the best available science to our policy colleagues, we question whether current modeling approaches and outputs are practically useful. Here, we synthesize conceptual problems with species distribution models (SDMs) associated with interspecific interactions, dispersal, ecological equilibria and time lags, evolution, and the sampling of niche space. Although projected SDMs have undoubtedly been critical in alerting us to the magnitude of climate change impacts, we conclude that until they offer insights that are more precise than what we can derive from basic ecological theory, we question their utility in deciding how to allocate scarce funds to large-scale conservation projects.

Key words

climate policy; climatic envelope; decision support; distribution modeling; niche; spatial modeling; species interaction.

Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087