Species-free species distribution models describe macroecological properties of protected area networks

Jason L. Robinson, James A. Fordyce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Among the greatest challenges facing the conservation of plants and animal species in protected areas are threats from a rapidly changing climate. An altered climate creates both challenges and opportunities for improving the management of protected areas in networks. Increasingly, quantitative tools like species distribution modeling are used to assess the performance of protected areas and predict potential responses to changing climates for groups of species, within a predictive framework. At larger geographic domains and scales, protected area network units have spatial geoclimatic properties that can be described in the gap analysis typically used to measure or aggregate the geographic distributions of species (stacked species distribution models, or S-SDM). We extend the use of species distribution modeling techniques in order to model the climate envelope (or "footprint") of individual protected areas within a network of protected areas distributed across the 48 conterminous United States and managed by the US National Park System. In our approach we treat each protected area as the geographic range of a hypothetical endemic species, then use MaxEnt and 5 uncorrelated BioClim variables to model the geographic distribution of the climatic envelope associated with each protected area unit (modeling the geographic area of park units as the range of a species). We describe the individual and aggregated climate envelopes predicted by a large network of 163 protected areas and briefly illustrate how macroecological measures of geodiversity can be derived from our analysis of the landscape ecological context of protected areas. To estimate trajectories of change in the temporal distribution of climatic features within a protected area network, we projected the climate envelopes of protected areas in current conditions onto a dataset of predicted future climatic conditions. Our results suggest that the climate envelopes of some parks may be locally unique or have narrow geographic distributions, and are thus prone to future shifts away from the climatic conditions in these parks in current climates. In other cases, some parks are broadly similar to large geographic regions surrounding the park or have climatic envelopes that may persist into near-term climate change. Larger parks predict larger climatic envelopes, in current conditions, but on average the predicted area of climate envelopes are smaller in our single future conditions scenario. Individual units in a protected area network may vary in the potential for climate adaptation, and adaptive management strategies for the network should account for the landscape contexts of the geodiversity or climate diversity within individual units. Conservation strategies, including maintaining connectivity, assessing the feasibility of assisted migration and other landscape restoration or enhancements can be optimized using analysis methods to assess the spatial properties of protected area networks in biogeographic and macroecological contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0173443
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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