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2015 Ecological Society of America Conference (Baltimore, MD Aug 9-14, 2015)
The future of species distribution models: synthesizing across ecological disciplines and spatial scales in the face of climate change
Over the last century, ecologists have faced the challenge of describing and interpreting the dynamic processes that structure ecosystems from the smallest microbiota to entire biomes. Different subfields of ecology have contributed substantially to this task, with some ecologists documenting species interactions in local communities with great detail, and others studying large-scale biogeographic patterns. Despite studying relevant and interrelated processes, ecologists struggle to integrate and synthesize this knowledge across spatial scales. In the next 100 years, this synthesis becomes even more urgent as we aim to accurately predict the effects of global climate change on ecological systems. Attempts to tackle this issue have begun, with the development of a suite of niche models (e.g. bioclimatic envelope models, habitat suitability models, etc.) used to correlate species environmental requirements with their large-scale geographic distribution. However, these correlative models ignore important ecological knowledge about species natural history gained over decades of experiments and observational studies, the results of which show that biotic interactions can structure species distributions, and contribute to species persistence. This problematic deficiency has been noted and widely debated for the past decade. Arguably, the discussion should shift from whether or not biotic interactions are relevant to structuring species distributions, to at what scale do these patterns manifest and how do we integrate our understanding of processes acting at different spatial scales.
The fundamental challenge to addressing the role of biotic interactions is that it requires bridging theoretical, process-based models of species interaction networks with spatially explicit, correlative models of species geographic distributions. Further, available information to build these models ranges from individual-based, biophysical effects of climate change, to global occurrence records. Thus, bridging the gap between these two disciplines requires a synthesis of current methods and a conceptualization of how these methods can be integrated and applied, or what new methods are needed to better inform predictions of species’ response to climate change. We have invited speakers from a diversity of ecological disciplines in hope of sparking a discussion about the future of multi-species distribution models from both a conceptual and applied perspective. We specifically ask speakers to address what they think are the most pressing challenges to incorporating biotic interactions into spatially-explicit models and to improving the accuracy of predictions about the effects of climate change on ecological communities.