Forecasting species distributions: correlation does not equal causation

Alexej P. K. Sirén*, Chris S. Sutherland, Ambarish V. Karmalkar, Matthew J. Duveneck, Toni Lyn Morelli

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Abstract

Aim
Identifying the mechanisms influencing species' distributions is critical for accurate climate change forecasts. However, current approaches are limited by correlative models that cannot distinguish between direct and indirect effects.

Location
New Hampshire and Vermont, USA.

Methods
Using causal and correlational models and new theory on range limits, we compared current (2014?2019) and future (2080s) distributions of ecologically important mammalian carnivores and competitors along range limits in the northeastern US under two global climate models (GCMs) and a high-emission scenario (RCP8.5) of projected snow and forest biomass change.

Results
Our hypothesis that causal models of climate-mediated competition would result in different distribution predictions than correlational models, both in the current and future periods, was well-supported by our results; however, these patterns were prominent only for species pairs that exhibited strong interactions. The causal model predicted the current distribution of Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) more accurately, likely because it incorporated the influence of competitive interactions mediated by snow with the closely related bobcat (Lynx rufus). Both modeling frameworks predicted an overall decline in lynx occurrence in the central high-elevation regions and increased occurrence in the northeastern region in the 2080s due to changes in land use that provided optimal habitat. However, these losses and gains were less substantial in the causal model due to the inclusion of an indirect buffering effect of snow on lynx.

Main conclusions
Our comparative analysis indicates that a causal framework, steeped in ecological theory, can be used to generate spatially explicit predictions of species distributions. This approach can be used to disentangle correlated predictors that have previously hampered understanding of range limits and species' response to climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalDiversity and Distributions
VolumeEarly View
Early online date28 Jan 2022
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jan 2022

Keywords

  • Abiotic
  • Biotic
  • Carnivores
  • Climate change
  • Competition
  • Ecological modeling
  • Snow
  • Species distribution modeling
  • Species interactions
  • Structural equation modeling

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