Aim Conservation managers are increasingly looking for modelled projections of species distributions to inform management strategies; however, the coarse resolution of available data usually compromises their helpfulness. The aim of this paper is to delineate and test different approaches for converting coarse-grain occurrence data into high-resolution predictions, and to clarify the conceptual circumstances affecting the accuracy of downscaled models.
Location We used environmental data from a real landscape, southern Africa, and simulated species distributions within this landscape.
Methods We built 10 virtual species at a resolution of 5 arcmin, and for each species we simulated atlas range maps at four decreasing resolutions (15, 30, 60, 120 arcmin). We tested the ability of three downscaling strategies to produce high-resolution predictions using two modelling techniques: generalized linear models and generalized boosted models. We calibrated reference models with high-resolution data and we compared the relative reduction of predictive performance in the downscaled models by using a null model approach. We also estimated the applicability of downscaling procedures to different situations by using distribution data for Mediterranean reptiles.
Results All reference models achieved high performance measures. For all strategies, we observed a reduction of predictive performance proportional to the degree of downscaling. The differences in evaluation indices between reference models and downscaled projections obtained from atlases at 15 and 30 arcmin were never statistically significant. The accuracy of projections scaled down from 60 arcmin largely depended on the combination of approach and algorithm adopted. Projections scaled down from 120 arcmin gave misleading results in all cases.
Main conclusions Moderate levels of downscaling allow for reasonably accurate results, regardless of the technique used. The most general effect of scaling down coarse-grain data is the reduction of model specificity. The models can successfully delineate a species’ environmental association up until a 12-fold downscaling, although with an increasing approximation that causes the overestimation of true distributions. We suggest appropriate procedures to mitigate the commission error introduced by downscaling at intermediate levels (approximately 12-fold). Reductions of grain size > 12-fold are discouraged.