A Test of Species Distribution Model Transferability Across Environmental and Geographic Space for 108 Western North American Tree Species

Noah D. Charney, Sydne Record, Beth E. Gerstner, Cory Merow, Phoebe L. Zarnetske, Brian J. Enquist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Predictions from species distribution models (SDMs) are commonly used in support of environmental decision-making to explore potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity. However, because future climates are likely to differ from current climates, there has been ongoing interest in understanding the ability of SDMs to predict species responses under novel conditions (i.e., model transferability). Here, we explore the spatial and environmental limits to extrapolation in SDMs using forest inventory data from 11 model algorithms for 108 tree species across the western United States. Algorithms performed well in predicting occurrence for plots that occurred in the same geographic region in which they were fitted. However, a substantial portion of models performed worse than random when predicting for geographic regions in which algorithms were not fitted. Our results suggest that for transfers in geographic space, no specific algorithm was better than another as there were no significant differences in predictive performance across algorithms. There were significant differences in predictive performance for algorithms transferred in environmental space with GAM performing best. However, the predictive performance of GAM declined steeply with increasing extrapolation in environmental space relative to other algorithms. The results of this study suggest that SDMs may be limited in their ability to predict species ranges beyond the environmental data used for model fitting. When predicting climate-driven range shifts, extrapolation may also not reflect important biotic and abiotic drivers of species ranges, and thus further misrepresent the realized shift in range. Future studies investigating transferability of process based SDMs or relationships between geodiversity and biodiversity may hold promise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number689295
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
StatePublished - Jul 1 2021


  • extrapolation
  • forest inventory
  • prediction error
  • species distribution model
  • species range
  • transferability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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