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Links between species' ecological traits and environmental requirements guide conservation planners

Knowledge of the whereabouts of many species is scarce or incomplete. As a consequence, predictive modelling of species’ distributions has become a prominent field in ecology and conservation.

Such modelling exploits relationships between species' occurrences and characteristic environmental conditions. The accuracy of resulting models is crucial if they are to improve our understanding of patterns in biological diversity and inform conservation decisions.

A new study by McPherson and Jetz in the journal Ecography demonstrates how some species’ distributions are better captured by these models than others' due to inherent differences in their ecological traits.

To estimate the level of uncertainty in model predictions, the authors have examined how species’ characteristics such as body size and diet affect model accuracy in 1329 African bird species. Distribution models are least accurate for migratory and wetland species and species with large geographic ranges. These findings illustrate the interaction between species' ecological attributes and their environmental requirements, a long-standing question in ecology.

From a practical standpoint, the study offers scientists, wildlife managers and policy-makers a rule of thumb for gauging the reliability of species distribution models when careful tests of model accuracy are hampered by lacking data. Moreover the study indicates that reasonable models of current distributions can be achieved for most species, which is excellent news for anyone using distribution models in conservation planning.

Davina Quarterman | alfa
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