Modelling the distribution of a threatened habitat: the California sage scrub


*Erin C. Riordan, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, 621 Charles E. Young Drive South, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.


Aim  Using predictive species distribution and ecological niche modelling our objectives are: (1) to identify important climatic drivers of distribution at regional scales of a locally complex and dynamic system – California sage scrub; (2) to map suitable sage scrub habitat in California; and (3) to distinguish between bioclimatic niches of floristic groups within sage scrub to assess the conservation significance of analysing such species groups.

Location  Coastal mediterranean-type shrublands of southern and central California.

Methods  Using point localities from georeferenced herbarium records, we modelled the potential distribution and bioclimatic envelopes of 14 characteristic sage scrub species and three floristic groups (south-coastal, coastal–interior disjunct and broadly distributed species) based upon current climate conditions. Maxent was used to map climatically suitable habitat, while principal components analysis followed by canonical discriminant analysis were used to distinguish between floristic groups and visualize species and group distributions in multivariate ecological space.

Results  Geographical distribution patterns of individual species were mirrored in the habitat suitability maps of floristic groups, notably the disjunct distribution of the coastal–interior species. Overlap in the distributions of floristic groups was evident in both geographical and multivariate niche space; however, discriminant analysis confirmed the separability of floristic groups based on bioclimatic variables. Higher performance of floristic group models compared with sage scrub as a whole suggests that groups have differing climate requirements for habitat suitability at regional scales and that breaking sage scrub into floristic groups improves the discrimination between climatically suitable and unsuitable habitat.

Main conclusions  The finding that presence-only data and climatic variables can produce useful information on habitat suitability of California sage scrub species and floristic groups at a regional scale has important implications for ongoing efforts of habitat restoration for sage scrub. In addition, modelling at a group level provides important information about the differences in climatic niches within California sage scrub. Finally, the high performance of our floristic group models highlights the potential a community-level modelling approach holds for investigating plant distribution patterns.