An evaluation of environmental factors affecting species distributions
Many different models can be built to explain the distributions of species. Often there is no single model that is clearly better than the alternatives, and this leads to uncertainty over which environmental factors are limiting species’ distributions. We investigated the support for different environmental factors by determining the drop in model performance when selected predictors were excluded from the model building process. We used a paired t-test over 37 plant species so that an environmental factor was only deemed significant if it consistently improved the results for multiple species. Geology and winter minimum temperatures were found to be the environmental factors with the most support, with a significant drop in model performance when either of these factors was excluded. However, there was less support for summer maximum temperature, as other environmental factors could combine to produce similar model performance. Our method of evaluating environmental factors using multiple species will not be capable of detecting predictors that are only important for one or two species, but it is difficult to distinguish these from spurious correlations. The strength of the method is that it increases inference for factors that consistently affect the distributions of many species. We discourage the assessment of models against predefined benchmarks, such as an Area Under the Curve (AUC) of more than 0.7, as many alternative models for the same species produce similar results. Therefore, the benchmarks do not provide any indication of how the performance of the selected model compares to alternative models, and they provide weak inference to accept any selected model.