• ecoregion;
  • Mesoamerica;
  • natural protected areas;
  • regression tree;
  • species distribution modelling;
  • tree species richness;
  • tropical forests


The realized species richness of tropical forests cannot yet be reliably mapped at a regional scale due to lack of systematically collected data. An estimate of the potential species richness (PSR), however, can be produced through the use of species distribution modelling. PSR is interpretable as a climatically determined upper limit to observed species richness. We mapped current PSR and future PSR under climate change scenarios for Mesoamerica by combining the spatial distributions of 2000 tree species as predicted by generalized additive models built from herbaria records and climate layers. An explanatory regression tree was used to extract conditional rules describing the relationship between PSR and climate. The results were summarized by country, ecoregion and protected area status in order to investigate current and possible future variability in PSR in the context of regional biodiversity conservation. Length of the dry season was found to be the key determinant of PSR. Protected areas were found to have higher median PSR values than unprotected areas in most of the countries within the study area. Areas with exceptionally high PSR, however, remain unprotected throughout the region. Neither changes in realized species richness nor extinctions will necessarily follow changes in modelled PSR under climate change. However model output suggests that an increase in temperature of around 3°C, combined with a 20 percent decrease in rainfall could lead to a widespread reduction of around 15 percent of current PSR, with values of up to 40 percent in some moist lower montane tropical forests. The modelled PSR of dry forest ecoregions was found to be relatively stable. Some cooler upper montane forests in northern Mesoamerica, where few species of tropical origin are currently found, may gain PSR if species are free to migrate.