In order to conserve the world’s biodiversity we need to know where species are found. We also need to predict where they might be found if the climate changes or human activity alters habitats. One way of gaining such knowledge is through field studies. Such work on the ground produces lists of species and adds to museum collections. However many tropical areas have not yet been visited by scientists. Even the most detailed studies from the best known areas of the tropics are far from exhaustive. This means that accurate distribution maps are not available for many tropical species. In order to address the problem increasingly sophisticated computer models have been designed that aim to predict where species might occur based on current knowledge. These models can often add a great deal of value to the limited information available. However, models are only as good as the data from which they are built.
A new study, published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, looks closely at recent attempts to apply species distribution modeling to guide conservation in the tropics. A review of the literature suggested that models built for the most threatened species are still likely to be the least reliable. Cayuela and colleagues found that output from species distribution models is rarely being used when setting conservation priorities. The difficulty is due to a chronic shortfall in the quantity and quality of data used to build models. Although there have been many improvements in the algorithms used for modeling, these advances can not be expected to address underlying weakness of the data. The work points out the need to continue to work on improved frameworks for sharing scarce yet invaluable data on tropical biodiversity. The authors also suggest that a more systematic approach to future data generation is needed in order to fill key gaps in the knowledge base used for tropical conservation.
Cayuela, L., Golicher, D. J., Newton, A. C., Kolb, M., de Alburquerque, F. S., Arets, E. J. M. M.,
Alkemade J. R. M. and Pérez, A. M. 2009. Species distribution modeling in the tropics: problems, potentialities, and the
role of biological data for effective species conservation. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 2(3):319-352