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Choice of predictor variables as a source of uncertainty in continental-scale species distribution modelling under climate change


Patrick E. Osborne, Centre for Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK. E-mail:


Aim  Species distribution modelling is commonly used to guide future conservation policies in the light of potential climate change. However, arbitrary decisions during the model-building process can affect predictions and contribute to uncertainty about where suitable climate space will exist. For many species, the key climatic factors limiting distributions are unknown. This paper assesses the uncertainty generated by using different climate predictor variable sets for modelling the impacts of climate change.

Location  Europe, 10° W to 50° E and 30° N to 60° N.

Methods  Using 1453 presence pixels at 30 arcsec resolution for the great bustard (Otis tarda), predictions of future distribution were made based on two emissions scenarios, three general climate models and 26 sets of predictor variables. Twenty-six current models were created, and 156 for both 2050 and 2080. Map comparison techniques were used to compare predictions in terms of the quantity and the location of presences (map comparison kappa, MCK) and using a range change index (RCI). Generalized linear models (GLMs) were used to partition explained deviance in MCK and RCI among sources of uncertainty.

Results  The 26 different variable sets achieved high values of AUC (area under the receiver operating characteristic curve) and yet introduced substantial variation into maps of current distribution. Differences between maps were even greater when distributions were projected into the future. Some 64–78% of the variation between future maps was attributable to choice of predictor variable set alone. Choice of general climate model and emissions scenario contributed a maximum of 15% variation and their order of importance differed for MCK and RCI.

Main conclusions  Generalized variable sets produce an unmanageable level of uncertainty in species distribution models which cannot be ignored. The use of sound ecological theory and statistical methods to check predictor variables can reduce this uncertainty, but our knowledge of species may be too limited to make more than arbitrary choices. When all sources of modelling uncertainty are considered together, it is doubtful whether ensemble methods offer an adequate solution. Future studies should explicitly acknowledge uncertainty due to arbitrary choices in the model-building process and develop ways to convey the results to decision-makers.