Do ecological niche models accurately identify climatic determinants of species ranges?

Christopher A. Searcy, H. Bradley Shaffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Defining species’ niches is central to understanding their distributions and is thus fundamental to basic ecology and climate change projections. Ecological niche models (ENMs) are a key component of making accurate projections and include descriptions of the niche in terms ofboth response curves and rankings ofvariable importance. In this study, we evaluate Maxent's ranking of environmental variables based on their importance in delimiting species' range boundaries by asking whether these same variables also govern annual recruitment based on long-term demographic studies. We found that Maxent-based assessments of variable importance in setting range boundaries in the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense; CTS) correlate very well with how important those variables are in governing ongoing recruitment of CTS at the population level. This strong correlation suggests that Maxent's ranking of variable importance captures biologically realistic assessments of factors governing population persistence. However, this result holds only when Maxent models are built using best-practice procedures and variables are ranked based on permutation importance. Our study highlights the need for building high-quality niche models and provides encouraging evidence that when such models are built, they can reflect important aspects of a species’ ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-435
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2016


  • Ambystoma californiense
  • Maxent
  • Percent contribution
  • Permutation importance
  • Recruitment
  • Salamander demography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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