Modelling species distributions in Britain: a hierarchical integration of climate and land-cover data


  • Richard G. Pearson,

  • Terence P. Dawson,

  • Canran Liu

R. G. Pearson (, T. P. Dawson and C. Liu, Environmental Change Inst., School of Geography and the Environment, Univ. of Oxford, 1a Mansfield Road, Oxford, U.K. OX1 3SZ.


A modelling framework for studying the combined effects of climate and land-cover changes on the distribution of species is presented. The model integrates land-cover data into a correlative bioclimatic model in a scale-dependent hierarchical manner, whereby Artificial Neural Networks are used to characterise species’ climatic requirements at the European scale and land-cover requirements at the British scale. The model has been tested against an alternative non-hierarchical approach and has been applied to four plant species in Britain: Rhynchospora alba, Erica tetralix, Salix herbacea and Geranium sylvaticum. Predictive performance has been evaluated using Cohen's Kappa statistic and the area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic curve, and a novel approach to identifying thresholds of occurrence which utilises three levels of confidence has been applied. Results demonstrate reasonable to good predictive performance for each species, with the main patterns of distribution simulated at both 10 km and 1 km resolutions. The incorporation of land-cover data was found to significantly improve purely climate-driven predictions for R. alba and E. tetralix, enabling regions with suitable climate but unsuitable land-cover to be identified. The study thus provides an insight into the roles of climate and land-cover as determinants of species’ distributions and it is demonstrated that the modelling approach presented can provide a useful framework for making predictions of distributions under scenarios of changing climate and land-cover type. The paper confirms the potential utility of multi-scale approaches for understanding environmental limitations to species’ distributions, and demonstrates that the search for environmental correlates with species’ distributions must be addressed at an appropriate spatial scale. Our study contributes to the mounting evidence that hierarchical schemes are characteristic of ecological systems.