Modelling horses for novel climate courses: insights from projecting potential distributions of native and alien Australian acacias with correlative and mechanistic models

12 December 2011

Aim Investigate the relative abilities of different bioclimatic models and data sets to project species ranges in novel environments utilizing the natural experiment in biogeography provided by Australian Acacia species. Location Australia, South Africa. Methods We built bioclimatic models for Acacia cyclops and Acacia pycnantha using two discriminatory correlative models (MaxEnt and Boosted Regression Trees) and a mechanistic niche model (CLIMEX). We fitted models using two training data sets: native-range data only (‘restricted’) and all available global data excluding South Africa (‘full’). We compared the ability of these techniques to project suitable climate for independent records of the species in South Africa. In addition, we assessed the global potential distributions of the species to projected climate change. Results All model projections assessed against their training data, the South African data and globally were statistically significant. In South Africa and globally, the additional information contained in the full data set generally improved model sensitivity, but at the expense of increased modelled prevalence, particularly in extrapolation areas for the correlative models. All models projected some climatically suitable areas in South Africa not currently occupied by the species. At the global scale, widespread and biologically unrealistic projections by the correlative models were explained by open-ended response curves, a problem which was not always addressed by broader background climate space or by the extra information in the full data set. In contrast, the global projections for CLIMEX were more conservative. Projections into 2070 indicated a polewards shift in climate suitability and a decrease in model interpolation area. Main conclusions Our results highlight the importance of carefully interpreting model projections in novel climates, particularly for correlative models. Much work is required to ensure bioclimatic models performed in a robust and ecologically plausible manner in novel climates. We explore reasons for variations between models and suggest methods and techniques for future improvements.