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Ecol Appl. 2009 Mar;19(2):538-49.

Dangers of predicting bird species distributions in response to land-cover changes.

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Forest Technology Centre of Catalonia, Biodiversity Section, Ctra. Sant Llorenç de Morunys, km 2 (Ctra. Vella) 25280, Solsona, Catalonia, Spain.


Land-cover changes from the last decades are leading to important declines in habitat quality, giving rise to changes in bird species distribution all over the world. However, land-cover changes result from a variety of different processes, and it is not clear how effective species distribution models are in capturing species responses to these changes. In this study, we evaluated our ability to predict the effects of land-cover changes on shifts in species distributions at large spatial and temporal scales using Mediterranean landscapes and early-successional, open-habitat birds as study models. Based on presence-absence data from the second Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas (1999-2002), we applied six different species distribution modeling techniques for 10 bird species using climate, topographic, and land-cover data as predictor variables. Then we back-projected the models on land-cover conditions from 1980 to evaluate the projections with field observation data from the first Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas (1975-1983). Finally, we assessed if, in addition to changes in habitat suitability resulting from land-cover shifts, descriptors of fire impact contributed to further explain species distribution dynamics: colonization and local extinction. We developed accurate model projections of current and past global patterns of species distribution, but our ability to predict species distribution dynamics was reduced. Colonization dynamics were generally more strongly related to fire descriptors than to changes in overall habitat suitability derived from land-cover changes. Our results warn of the dangers of projecting species distribution models onto future conditions if processes behind species distribution dynamics are not explicitly included. Consideration of ecologically meaningful processes for species (i.e., fire disturbance) when modeling species' distribution might contribute to a better explanation of species' colonization dynamics.

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