In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Species Distribution Modeling

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Reliance (or Not) on the Niche Concept
  • Using the Models to Extrapolate
  • Software

Ecology Species Distribution Modeling
Jane Elith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0226


Models of species distributions aim to describe and often to predict the spatial distribution of individual species, using as a basis the species’ relationship with its environment. At a broad level this can be done in two main ways. The first is to model the processes that underpin where the species occur: demographic or physiological processes that fundamentally define the species distribution. The second and much more common approach is to fit a numerical model that defines the relationships between observations of the species occurrence and any covariates considered relevant. This article focuses on the second, aiming to introduce the reader to key texts and ideas in this large and popular field of modeling whose applications span ecology, biogeography, evolutionary biology, conservation, biosecurity, health, and computation. It focuses on the models and the mapped predictions often derived from them. Referred to as species distribution models (SDMs) here, these (or their variants) are also referred to as ecological niche models, habitat models, or bioclimatic envelope models. Several textbooks have now been published on SDMs, giving good insights into background, theory, applications, data, and models. Thousands of manuscripts are published including those developing new methods, those that apply SDMs to ecological theory and understanding, and those that apply the maps in conservation, planning, and management applications. This bibliography leads the reader through the literature, first covering the background and standard approaches to fitting, evaluating, and reporting SDMs. Then, aiming to extend beyond the information presented thoroughly in existing textbooks, it describes related models that are still correlative and applicable for modeling individual species but that provide important extensions. These allow modelers to deal with the common complexities in data (structured datasets, imperfect detection, spatio-temporal issues) and to broaden the models to include biological processes or issues of interest such as biotic interactions, movement, traits and phylogenetic data.

General Overviews

Four textbooks focus on SDMs. Franklin 2010 was the first and provides a thorough and useful overview. Peterson, et al. 2011 is particularly strong on the niche aspects; Drew, et al. 2011 is an edited volume bringing together relevant contributions in the domain of landscape ecology, and Guisan, et al. 2017 provides both theory and working examples in R, the free statistical software. Many reviews are available, often focusing on specific subtopics. Those that complement the texts above through different authorship, or specific foci include: Robinson, et al. 2017 for a marine focus, and Domisch, et al. 2015 for freshwaters. Cayuela, et al. 2009 overviews issues relevant to using SDMs in the tropics. Also see Elith and Leathwick 2009, under Historical Background, which traces the history of SDMs and focuses on insights gained across disciplines.

  • Cayuela, L., D. J. Golicher, A. C. Newton, et al. 2009. Species distribution modeling in the tropics: Problems, potentialities, and the role of biological data for effective species conservation. Tropical Conservation Science 2.3: 319–352.

    DOI: 10.1177/194008290900200304

    Reviews SDMs and finds that relatively few focus on the tropics then uses case studies to explore problems of data quality and availability in the tropics. Suggests next steps for improving the situation, motivated by pressing conservation needs in tropical regions.

  • Domisch, S., S. C. Jähnig, J. P. Simaika, M. Kuemmerlen, and S. Stoll. 2015. Application of species distribution models in stream ecosystems: The challenges of spatial and temporal scale, environmental predictors and species occurrence data. Fundamental and Applied Limnology 186: 45–61.

    DOI: 10.1127/fal/2015/0627

    Focuses on important issues for SDMs in stream ecosystems: the connectedness of stream networks, finding relevant predictor variables, and overcoming the challenge of detection difficulties for many stream species.

  • Drew, C. A., Y. Wiersma, and F. Huettmann, eds. 2011. Predictive species and habitat modeling in landscape ecology: Concepts and applications. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    A textbook on SDMs with particular focus on landscape-scale species and habitat modeling. An edited volume with many authors, with chapters spanning theory, data, technology, models and their applications.

  • Franklin, J. 2010. Mapping species distributions: Spatial inference and prediction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511810602

    The first published textbook on SDMs and a useful and accessible overview of the field. With background information on the ecological bases for these models and coverage of the practicalities of fitting and evaluating them.

  • Guisan, A., W. Thuiller, and N. E. Zimmermann. 2017. Habitat suitability and distribution models: With Applications in R. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139028271

    The most recent textbook on SDMs, particularly useful for the inclusion of R code to demonstrate many aspects of data preparation, model fitting, and evaluation. The information on predictor variables and species data is detailed and makes a strong contribution.

  • Peterson, A. T., J. Soberon, R. G. Pearson, et al. 2011. Ecological niches and geographic distributions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691136868.001.0001

    A textbook on SDMs, with the emphasis on niche modeling. This is the book to read for those interested in a focus on niches.

  • Robinson, N. M., W. A. Nelson, M. J. Costello, J. E. Sutherland, and C. J. Lundquist. 2017. A systematic review of marine-based species distribution models (SDMs) with recommendations for best practice. Frontiers in Marine Science 4:421.

    DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00421

    A thorough and comprehensive review of marine SDMs.

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