SUMMARY 1. The prediction of species distributions is of primary importance in ecology and conservation biology. Statistical models play an important role in this regard; however, researchers have little guidance when choosing between competing methodologies because few comparative studies have been conducted.
2. We provide a comprehensive comparison of traditional and alternative techniques for predicting species distributions using logistic regression analysis, linear discriminant analysis, classification trees and artificial neural networks to model: (1) the presence/absence of 27 fish species as a function of habitat conditions in 286 temperate lakes located in south-central Ontario, Canada and (2) simulated data sets exhibiting deterministic, linear and non-linear species response curves.
3. Detailed evaluation of model predictive power showed that approaches produced species models that differed in overall correct classification, specificity (i.e. ability to correctly predict species absence) and sensitivity (i.e. ability to correctly predict speciespresence) and in terms of which of the study lakes they correctly classified. Onaverage, neural networks outperformed the other modelling approaches, although all approaches predicted species presence/absence with moderate to excellent success.
4. Based on simulated non-linear data, classification trees and neural networks greatly outperformed traditional approaches, whereas all approaches exhibited similar correct classification rates when modelling simulated linear data.
5. Detailed evaluation of model explanatory insight showed that the relative importance of the habitat variables in the species models varied among the approaches, where habitat variable importance was similar among approaches for some species and very different for others.
6. In general, differences in predictive power (both correct classification rate and identity of the lakes correctly classified) among the approaches corresponded with differences in habitat variable importance, suggesting that non-linear modelling approaches (i.e. classification trees and neural networks) are better able to capture and model complex, non-linear patterns found in ecological data. The results from the comparisons using simulated data further support this notion.
7. By employing parallel modelling approaches with the same set of data and focusing on comparing multiple metrics of predictive performance, researchers can begin to choose predictive models that not only provide the greatest predictive power, but also best fit the proposed application.