Misleading prioritizations from modelling range shifts under climate change

Global Ecology and Biogeography
By: , and 




Conservation planning requires the prioritization of a subset of taxa and geographical locations to focus monitoring and management efforts. Integration of the threats and opportunities posed by climate change often relies on predictions from species distribution models, particularly for assessments of vulnerability or invasion risk for multiple taxa. We evaluated whether species distribution models could reliably rank changes in species range size under climate and land use change.


Conterminous U.S.A.

Time period


Major taxa studied

Passerine birds.


We estimated ensembles of species distribution models based on historical North American Breeding Bird Survey occurrences for 190 songbirds, and generated predictions to recent years given c. 35 years of observed land use and climate change. We evaluated model predictions using standard metrics of discrimination performance and a more detailed assessment of the ability of models to rank species vulnerability to climate change based on predicted range loss, range gain, and overall change in range size.


Species distribution models yielded unreliable and misleading assessments of relative vulnerability to climate and land use change. Models could not accurately predict range expansion or contraction, and therefore failed to anticipate patterns of range change among species. These failures occurred despite excellent overall discrimination ability and transferability to the validation time period, which reflected strong performance at the majority of locations that were either always or never occupied by each species.

Main conclusions

Models failed for the questions and at the locations of greatest interest to conservation and management. This highlights potential pitfalls of multi-taxa impact assessments under global change; in our case, models provided misleading rankings of the most impacted species, and spatial information about range changes was not credible. As modelling methods and frameworks continue to be refined, performance assessments and validation efforts should focus on the measures of risk and vulnerability useful for decision-making.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Misleading prioritizations from modelling range shifts under climate change
Series title Global Ecology and Biogeography
DOI 10.1111/geb.12726
Volume 27
Issue 6
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 9 p.
First page 658
Last page 666
Country United States
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details