Predicting Species Distributions in Poorly-Studied Landscapes

Biodiversity and ConservationPilar A. Hernandez

Conservationists are increasingly relying on distribution models to predict where species are likely to occur, especially in poorly surveyed but biodiverse areas. Modeling is challenging in these cases because locality data necessary for model formation are often scarce and spatially imprecise. To identify methods best suited to modeling in these conditions, we compared the success of three algorithms (Maxent, Mahalanobis Typicalities and Random Forests) at predicting distributions of eight bird and eight mammal species endemic to the eastern slopes of the central Andes. We found that for species that are known from moderate numbers (N= 38–94) of localities, the three methods performed similarly for species with restricted distributions but Maxent and Random Forests yielded better results for species with wider distributions. For species with small numbers of sample localities (N = 5–21), Maxent produced the most consistently successful results, followed by Random Forests and then Mahalanobis Typicalities. Overall, Maxent appears to be the most capable method for modeling distributions of Andean bird and mammal species because of the consistency of results in varying conditions, although the other methods have strengths in certain situations.

NatureServe Author(s)


  • Hernandez PA, Franke I, Herzog SK, Pacheco V, Paniagua L, Quintana HL, Soto A, Swenson JJ, Tovar C, Valqui TH, Vargas J and Young BE. (2008) Predicting species distributions in poorly-studied landscapes. Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 1353-1366