Creating virtual species to test species distribution models: the importance of landscape structure, dispersal and population processes

Liam Grimmett, Ana Horta, Rachel Whitsed

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Abstract

The use of virtual species to test species distribution models is important for understanding how aspects of the model development process influence model performance. Typically, virtual species are simulated by defining their niche as a function of environmental variables and simulating occurrence probabilistically via Bernoulli trials. This approach ignores endogenous processes known to drive species distribution such as dispersal and population dynamics. To understand whether these processes are important for simulating virtual species we compared the probabilistic simulation approach to those incorporating endogenous processes. This comparison was done by evaluating changes in the relationship between species occurrence and habitat suitability over a number of landscapes with varying spatial structure. We found that the combined effects of population dynamics and dispersal meant the probability of occurrence of a single cell was not only dependent on habitat suitability, but also the number of occupied cells nearby. This resulted in a dependence on the size of clusters of high suitability cells (analogous to patch size) to maintain populations, increased residual spatial autocorrelation and non‐stationarity of the species response between landscapes. These data characteristics are attributes of real species distribution data and are not present in probabilistic simulations. Researchers using virtual species should consider the importance of these characteristics to their study objectives to decide whether the inclusion of endogenous processes is necessary.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)753-765
Number of pages13
JournalEcography
Volume44
Issue number5
Early online date10 Feb 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

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