Incorporating distance constraints into species distribution models


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Species distribution models (SDM) are increasingly applied as predictive tools for purposes of conservation planning and management. Such models rely on the concept of the ecological niche and assume that distribution patterns of the modelled species are at some sort of equilibrium with the environment. This assumption contrasts with empirical evidence indicating that distribution patterns of many species are constrained by dispersal limitation.
  • 2We demonstrate that the performance of SDM based on presence-only data can be significantly enhanced by incorporating distance constraints (functions relating the likelihood of species’ occurrences at a site to the distance of the site from known presence locations) to the modelling procedure. This result is highly consistent for a variety of niche-based models (ENFA, DOMAIN and Mahalanobis distance), distance functions (nearest neighbour distance, cumulative distance and Gaussian filter) and taxonomic groups (plants, snails and birds, a total of 226 species).
  • 3Distance constraints are expected to enhance the accuracy of niche-based models even in the absence of strong dispersal limitation by accounting for mass effects and spatial autocorrelation in environmental factors for which data are not available.
  • 4While distance-based methods outperformed niche-based models when all data were used, their accuracy deteriorated sharply with smaller sample sizes. Niche-based methods are shown to cope better with small sample sizes than distance-based methods, demonstrating the potential advantage of niche-based models when calibration data are limited.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Incorporating distance constraints in SDM provides a simple yet powerful method to account for spatial autocorrelation in patterns of species distribution, and is shown empirically to improve significantly the performance of such models. We therefore recommend incorporating distance constraints in future applications of SDM.