How decisions about fitting species distribution models affect conservation outcomes

Date: 25, Nov, 2020
Author(s):   Muscatello, A., Elith, J., Kujala, H.
Publisher: Conservation Biology

Species distribution models (SDMs) are increasingly used in conservation and land-use planning as inputs to describe biodiversity patterns. These models can be built in different ways, and decisions about data preparation, selection of predictor variables, model fitting, and evaluation all alter the resulting predictions. Commonly, the true distribution of species is unknown and independent data to verify which SDM variant to choose are lacking. Such model uncertainty is of concern to planners. We analyzed how 11 routine decisions about model complexity, predictors, bias treatment, and setting thresholds for predicted values altered conservation priority patterns across 25 species. Models were created with MaxEnt and run through Zonation to determine the priority rank of sites. Although all SDM variants performed well (area under the curve >0.7), they produced spatially different predictions for species and different conservation priority solutions. Priorities were most strongly altered by decisions to not address bias or to apply binary thresholds to predicted values; on average 40% and 35%, respectively, of all grid cells received an opposite priority ranking. Forcing high model complexity altered conservation solutions less than forcing simplicity (14% and 24% of cells with opposite rank values, respectively). Use of fewer species records to build models or choosing alternative bias treatments had intermediate effects (25% and 23%, respectively). Depending on modeling choices, priority areas overlapped as little as 10–20% with the baseline solution, affecting top and bottom priorities differently. Our results demonstrate the extent of model-based uncertainty and quantify the relative impacts of SDM building decisions. When it is uncertain what the best SDM approach and conservation plan is, solving uncertainty or considering alterative options is most important for those decisions that change plans the most.