Addressing potential local adaptation in species distribution models: Implications for conservation under climate change

Maria Helena Hällfors, Jishan Liao, Jason Dzurisin, Ralph Grundel, Marko Hyvärinen, Kevin Towle, Grace C. Wu, Jessica J. Hellmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Species distribution models (SDMs) have been criticized for involving assumptions that ignore or categorize many ecologically relevant factors such as dispersal ability and biotic interactions. Another potential source of model error is the assumption that species are ecologically uniform in their climatic tolerances across their range. Typically, SDMs treat a species as a single entity, although populations of many species differ due to local adaptation or other genetic differentiation. Not taking local adaptation into account may lead to incorrect range prediction and therefore misplaced conservation efforts. A constraint is that we often do not know the degree to which populations are locally adapted. Lacking experimental evidence, we still can evaluate niche differentiation within a species' range to promote better conservation decisions. We explore possible conservation implications of making type I or type II errors in this context. For each of two species, we construct three separate Max-Ent models, one considering the species as a single population and two of disjunct populations. Principal component analyses and response curves indicate different climate characteristics in the current environments of the populations. Model projections into future climates indicate minimal overlap between areas predicted to be climatically suitable by the whole species vs. population-based models. We present a workflow for addressing uncertainty surrounding local adaptation in SDM application and illustrate the value of conducting population-based models to compare with whole-species models. These comparisons might result in more cautious management actions when alternative range outcomes are considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1154-1169
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
M. H. H?llfors and J. Liao contributed equally to this research. M. H. H?llfors was supported by LUOVA-Doctoral Programme in Wildlife Biology Research. J. Liao was supported by NSF ACI 1029584. G. C. Wu and J. Dzurisin were supported by funding from the Climate Change Response Program, U.S. National Park Service to R. Grundel and J. J. Hellman. We thank Jamie Kass and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on the manuscript. Sarah Kleppinger helped to compile Karner occurrence data, and we thank the following for occupancy information: Robert Dirig, Wisconsin DNR, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio State University, University of Florida, Royal Ontario Museum, Yale Peabody Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. Raino Lampinen and Terhi Rytt?ri helped compile occurrence data for the SP. Leena Helynranta assisted with preparing figures. The authors declare no competing interests. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This article is Contribution 1969 of the USGS Great Lakes Science Center.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 by the Ecological Society of America.


  • Biodiversity management
  • Conservation effectiveness
  • Environmental niche models
  • Intraspecific variation
  • Lycaeides melissa samuelis
  • Model uncertainty
  • Primula nutans var. finmarchica
  • Translocation


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