Big data of tree species distributions: how big and how good?

Josep M. Serra-Diaz, Brian J. Enquist, Brian Maitner, Cory Merow, Jens C. Svenning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Background: Trees play crucial roles in the biosphere and societies worldwide, with a total of 60,065 tree species currently identified. Increasingly, a large amount of data on tree species occurrences is being generated worldwide: from inventories to pressed plants. While many of these data are currently available in big databases, several challenges hamper their use, notably geolocation problems and taxonomic uncertainty. Further, we lack a complete picture of the data coverage and quality assessment for open/public databases of tree occurrences. Methods: We combined data from five major aggregators of occurrence data (e.g. Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Botanical Information and Ecological Network v.3, DRYFLOR, RAINBIO and Atlas of Living Australia) by creating a workflow to integrate, assess and control data quality of tree species occurrences for species distribution modeling. We further assessed the coverage – the extent of geographical data – of five economically important tree families (Arecaceae, Dipterocarpaceae, Fagaceae, Myrtaceae, Pinaceae). Results: Globally, we identified 49,206 tree species (84.69% of total tree species pool) with occurrence records. The total number of occurrence records was 36.69 M, among which 6.40 M could be considered high quality records for species distribution modeling. The results show that Europe, North America and Australia have a considerable spatial coverage of tree occurrence data. Conversely, key biodiverse regions such as South-East Asia and central Africa and parts of the Amazon are still characterized by geographical open-public data gaps. Such gaps are also found even for economically important families of trees, although their overall ranges are covered. Only 15,140 species (26.05%) had at least 20 records of high quality. Conclusions: Our geographical coverage analysis shows that a wealth of easily accessible data exist on tree species occurrences worldwide, but regional gaps and coordinate errors are abundant. Thus, assessment of tree distributions will need accurate occurrence quality control protocols and key collaborations and data aggregation, especially from national forest inventory programs, to improve the current publicly available data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number30
JournalForest Ecosystems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Big data
  • Occurrence data
  • Quality control and assessment
  • Tree distributions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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