Importance of positive interactions on species distribution models

Species distribution models for desert plants relying only on climate data miss microclimate changes created by shrubs that may expand a species' niche

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 4,269 species occurrences
Plantago ovata
New Mexico plumeseed (Rafinesquia neomexicana) by dfong16 via iNaturalist. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Facilitation through positive interactions between species can affect the range of a beneficiary by changing the microclimate to match its fundamental niche in an otherwise unsuitable and high-stress environment such as a desert. When modelling ecological niches, these interactions may affect models.

In an attempt to quantify the effects of such microclimate ameliorations, authors used GBIF-mediated occurrences to model the distribution of 20 annual plant species–10 known beneficiaries and 10 unreported–in the Mojave Desert while examining the results of including benefactor shrub species.

For known beneficiary species, the performance of models improved significantly when taking shrub co-occurrences into consideration, but they were not different for unreported species. These results highlight the importance of positive interactions and other biotic interactions in modelling, and suggest that co-occurrence of benefactor species can be used as a proxy for facilitation.

Link to original article

Filazzola A, Sotomayor DA and Lortie CJ (2017) Modelling the niche space of desert annuals needs to include positive interactions. Oikos. Wiley 127(2): 264–273. Available at: