Can fire atlas data improve species distribution model projections?

Shawn M. Crimmins, Solomon Z. Dobrowski, Alison R. Mynsberge, Hugh D. Safford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Correlative species distribution models (SDMs) are widely used in studies of climate change impacts, yet are often criticized for failing to incorporate disturbance processes that can influence species distributions. Here we use two temporally independent data sets of vascular plant distributions, climate data, and fire atlas data to examine the influence of disturbance history on SDM projection accuracy through time in the mountain ranges of California, USA. We used hierarchical partitioning to examine the influence of fire occurrence on the distribution of 144 vascular plant species and built a suite of SDMs to examine how the inclusion of fire-related predictors (fire occurrence and departure from historical fire return intervals) affects SDM projection accuracy. Fire occurrence provided the least explanatory power among predictor variables for predicting species' distributions, but provided improved explanatory power for species whose regeneration is tied closely to fire. A measure of the departure from historic fire return interval had greater explanatory power for calibrating modern SDMs than fire occurrence. This variable did not improve internal model accuracy for most species, although it did provide marginal improvement to models for species adapted to high-frequency fire regimes. Fire occurrence and fire return interval departure were strongly related to the climatic covariates used in SDM development, suggesting that improvements in model accuracy may not be expected due to limited additional explanatory power. Our results suggest that the inclusion of coarse-scale measures of disturbance in SDMs may not be necessary to predict species distributions under climate change, particularly for disturbance processes that are largely mediated by climate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1057-1069
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • California USA
  • Climate change
  • Disturbance
  • Fire
  • Fire return interval
  • Niche
  • Species distribution model
  • Transferability
  • Vascular plant species


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