A novel tool to assess the effect of intraspecific spatial niche variation on species distribution shifts under climate change
Van Dyck, Hans
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Aim Niche‐based models often ignore spatial variation in the climatic niche of a species across its occupied range and the related variation in the response to changing climate conditions. This assumption may lead to inaccurate predictions of species distribution shifts under climate change. Models have been developed to address this issue, but most of them depend upon prior knowledge on evolutionary lineages, phenotypic traits or ecological processes underlying local adaptation or adaptive plasticity. As such information is often lacking, these models are not frequently used to predict distribution shifts for many species. This limits our ability to explore general patterns of change across species. Innovation Here, we propose a modelling framework that can be applied across a large sample of species to assess their distribution shifts under future climate while exploring the effect of intraspecific spatial variation in the response to climate conditions. The proposed approach does not require a detailed understanding of the processes underlying such variation. The geographical distribution of a species is split into spatial subsets along the gradient of occupied climate conditions. These subsets are considered as proxies for intraspecific spatial niche variation. Local models are built with each subset and their predictions are assembled across the study area under different dispersal assumptions. Using European butterflies as an example, we show that this approach can be used to explore the uncertainty about predicted distribution shifts arising from intraspecific spatial variation in sensitivity and response to changing climate conditions. Main conclusions Our modelling approach is not intended to replace advanced modelling methods based on species‐specific knowledge of ecological and evolutionary processes, but it is useful as an exploratory tool to detect species for which detailed information on intraspecific responses to climate conditions is likely to make a difference for prediction of future distribution shifts.