ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Predicting species distributions from small numbers of occurrence records: a test case using cryptic geckos in Madagascar


Richard G. Pearson, Department of Herpetology & Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024, USA.
E-mail: pearson@amnh.org


Aim  Techniques that predict species potential distributions by combining observed occurrence records with environmental variables show much potential for application across a range of biogeographical analyses. Some of the most promising applications relate to species for which occurrence records are scarce, due to cryptic habits, locally restricted distributions or low sampling effort. However, the minimum sample sizes required to yield useful predictions remain difficult to determine. Here we developed and tested a novel jackknife validation approach to assess the ability to predict species occurrence when fewer than 25 occurrence records are available.

Location  Madagascar.

Methods  Models were developed and evaluated for 13 species of secretive leaf-tailed geckos (Uroplatus spp.) that are endemic to Madagascar, for which available sample sizes range from 4 to 23 occurrence localities (at 1 km2 grid resolution). Predictions were based on 20 environmental data layers and were generated using two modelling approaches: a method based on the principle of maximum entropy (Maxent) and a genetic algorithm (GARP).

Results  We found high success rates and statistical significance in jackknife tests with sample sizes as low as five when the Maxent model was applied. Results for GARP at very low sample sizes (less than c. 10) were less good. When sample sizes were experimentally reduced for those species with the most records, variability among predictions using different combinations of localities demonstrated that models were greatly influenced by exactly which observations were included.

Main conclusions  We emphasize that models developed using this approach with small sample sizes should be interpreted as identifying regions that have similar environmental conditions to where the species is known to occur, and not as predicting actual limits to the range of a species. The jackknife validation approach proposed here enables assessment of the predictive ability of models built using very small sample sizes, although use of this test with larger sample sizes may lead to overoptimistic estimates of predictive power. Our analyses demonstrate that geographical predictions developed from small numbers of occurrence records may be of great value, for example in targeting field surveys to accelerate the discovery of unknown populations and species.