Aim The area under the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve (AUC) is a widely used statistic for assessing the discriminatory capacity of species distribution models. Here, I used simulated data to examine the interdependence of the AUC and classical discrimination measures (sensitivity and specificity) derived for the application of a threshold. I shall further exemplify with simulated data the implications of using the AUC to evaluate potential versus realized distribution models.
Innovation After applying the threshold that makes sensitivity and specificity equal, a strong relationship between the AUC and these two measures was found. This result is corroborated with real data. On the other hand, the AUC penalizes the models that estimate potential distributions (the regions where the species could survive and reproduce due to the existence of suitable environmental conditions), and favours those that estimate realized distributions (the regions where the species actually lives).
Main conclusions Firstly, the independence of the AUC from the threshold selection may be irrelevant in practice. This result also emphasizes the fact that the AUC assumes nothing about the relative costs of errors of omission and commission. However, in most real situations this premise may not be optimal. Measures derived from a contingency table for different cost ratio scenarios, together with the ROC curve, may be more informative than reporting just a single AUC value. Secondly, the AUC is only truly informative when there are true instances of absence available and the objective is the estimation of the realized distribution. When the potential distribution is the goal of the research, the AUC is not an appropriate performance measure because the weight of commission errors is much lower than that of omission errors.