Can mechanism inform species' distribution models?

Lauren B. Buckley, Mark C. Urban, Michael J. Angilletta, Lisa G. Crozier, Leslie J. Rissler, Michael W. Sears

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

426 Scopus citations


Two major approaches address the need to predict species distributions in response to environmental changes. Correlative models estimate parameters phenomenologically by relating current distributions to environmental conditions. By contrast, mechanistic models incorporate explicit relationships between environmental conditions and organismal performance, estimated independently of current distributions. Mechanistic approaches include models that translate environmental conditions into biologically relevant metrics (e.g. potential duration of activity), models that capture environmental sensitivities of survivorship and fecundity, and models that use energetics to link environmental conditions and demography. We compared how two correlative and three mechanistic models predicted the ranges of two species: a skipper butterfly (Atalopedes campestris) and a fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). Correlative and mechanistic models performed similarly in predicting current distributions, but mechanistic models predicted larger range shifts in response to climate change. Although mechanistic models theoretically should provide more accurate distribution predictions, there is much potential for improving their flexibility and performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1041-1054
Number of pages14
JournalEcology letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Biophysical model
  • Climate change
  • Climate envelope model
  • Demography
  • Fundamental niche
  • Physiology
  • Realized niche
  • Species' range model

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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